St. Ignatius of Antioch
In the year 107, this elderly bishop was condemned to death by the Roman authorities. Since the Romans at that time were celebrating their victories in war, they decided to transport St. Ignatius to the capital so that his execution might provide some entertainment for the Roman citizens. On his way to Rome, St. Ignatius wrote seven letters or epistles that are among the most valuable documents of the Early Church. In these letters, St. Ignatius repeatedly calls himself Theophoros, which means “the bearer of God.” This title led to the early Christian tradition that St. Ignatius was the little child that our Lord Jesus Christ picked up and placed before His disciples in Mark 9:36, which reads,
“Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”” (Mark 9:36–37 NKJV)
The early Christian tradition is that St. Ignatius was this child. Since that time, he went on to become one of the most respected figures of the Early Church. This is clear from the fact that he became the bishop of the Church of Antioch, which was one of the most ancient churches. A bishop, of course, was second only to the Holy Apostles in the Holy Church.
On his way to Rome, St. Ignatius passed through Asia Minor where many Christians visited him. He received three bishops from three churches, including Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus, who is quite possibly the same Onesimus mentioned in St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. He wrote letters to each of these churches from Smyrna and additional letters to other churches from Troas.
Although we do not have historical information concerning the actual execution of St. Ignatius, the tradition of the Holy Church is that he received the eternal crown of martyrdom by being thrown to the wild beasts in the Coliseum shortly after he arrived in Rome.
Here are online versions of his seven letters which have survived.
- Epistle to the Ephesians: Shorter and Longer Versions
- Epistle to the Magnesians: Shorter and Longer Versions
- Epistle to the Trallians: Shorter and Longer Versions
- Epistle to the Romans: Shorter and Longer Versions
- Epistle to the Philadelphians: Shorter and Longer Versions
- Epistle to the Smyrnæans: Shorter and Longer Versions
- Epistle to Polycarp: Shorter and Longer Versions
When St. Ignatius was on his way to martyrdom in Rome, he stopped in Smyrna to receive Christians and to write epistles to several churches. The bishop of Smyrna at the time was a young man named Polycarp, who according to our tradition, was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Nearly fifty years after St. Ignatius’s martyrdom, the time would come for St. Polycarp to be martyred, as well.
When he was brough to trial, the proconsul urged him to worship the emperor in light of his old age, because Polycarp was around 86 years old at this time. The proconsul ordered him to shout, “Out with the atheists!”, which was the chant used by the pagan mob to refer to the Christians. St. Polycarp agreed, and pointed to the pagan mob while saying, “Out with the atheists!” Of course, this angered the mob. The proconsul tried to persuade St. Polycarp to curse Christ so that he could be set free, but St. Polycarp refused, saying, “For eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has done me no evil. How could I curse my King Who has saved me?” The dialogue between St. Polycarp and the proconsul continued. When St. Polycarp was threatened with death by burning at the stake, he responded that, while the fire of execution would last for a moment and end, the fire of eternal condemnation would last forever. Finally, unable to convince him, the proconsul ordered St. Polycarp tied to a stake and burned alive. As the fire burned, St. Polycarp prayed these words,
Lord, Sovereign God, I thank You for You have deemed me worthy of this moment, so that, jointly with Your martyrs, I may have a share in the cup of Christ. For this, I bless and glorify You, Amen.
Here is the full account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp: