THE LITTLE CHILD WHOM JESUS HELD ON HIS LAP
WHEN HE SPOKE THE WORDS,
“LET THE CHILDREN COME UNTO ME”
Ignatius was given the choice... Jesus the Christ... or the teeth of the lions! With out even batting an eye, Ignatius of Antioch embraced his call to martyrdom with zeal.
St. Ignatius, otherwise known as Theophorus, which in Greek means “God-Bearer,” led the Christian Church during a critical period of her history. Orthodox tradition had maintained that he was the little child Christ held on His lap when he spoke the words, “Let the children come unto me.” Born around the year 50 in Syria, Ignatius was an Apostolic Father of the Church, a disciple, with St. Polycarp, of St. John the Evangelist, and the third bishop of Antioch, the former See of Peter before he went to Rome. Bishop of Antioch, Syria (now in Turkey), known mainly from seven highly regarded letters that he wrote during a trip to Rome, as a prisoner condemned to be executed for his beliefs. He was apparently eager to counteract the teachings of two groups, the Judaizers, who did not accept the authority of the New Testament, and Docetists, who held that Christ’s sufferings and death were apparent but not real. Ignatius untiringly affirmed that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old Testament and insisted upon the reality of Christ’s human nature. For him, Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection were a vital guarantee of “life everlasting” in the risen Christ. Ignatius believed that, had Christ died only in appearance, his own suffering and his readiness to sacrifice his life for Christ would have no meaning. The letters have often been cited as a source of knowledge of the Christian church at the beginning of the 2nd century. His thought is strongly influenced by the letters of St. Paul and also by the tradition connected with St. John the apostle. It is possible that he knew St. John personally.
Ignatius was taken prisoner during a persecution of the Antioch church; he was put in chains and escorted, along with others, by a unit of soldiers to Troas in northwestern Asia Minor for embarkation to Rome. By that time he must have been a well-known figure among Christians. All along his way delegations of churches, even from places off his route, accompanied him from town to town. For unknown reasons, the journey was interrupted at Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), where he was warmly received by the local Christians and their bishop, St. Polycarp, who was to become his beloved friend.
There he was also met by representatives—the bishop, some elders, or presbyters, and some deacons of the nearby churches of Ephesus, Magnesia ad Maeandrum, and Tralles, who as far as possible looked after his needs. After these delegations left Smyrna, he wrote letters to their respective communities thanking them for their attention and offering them guidelines for their lives as Christians. At his request the deacon Burrus of Ephesus was allowed to stay with him. Ignatius also wrote to Rome, urging his fellow Christians there not to prevent his martyrdom by intercession on his behalf and commending to their charity Syrian Christians who had arrived there ahead of him.
From Smyrna his journey continued to the district of Troas, where a shorter stay was made pending embarkation. This stopover was not long enough for Ignatius to write to all the churches he wished to address. He did, however, write to the congregations at Philadelphia and Smyrna (these letters were delivered by Burrus, who had accompanied him to Troas) and to Bishop Polycarp, asking him in a personal letter to write to other churches in his name. At Troas he had been joined by the deacons Philo of Cilicia and Agathopus from Syria; they gave him the consoling news that Antioch was again “at peace.” It is not certain whether this meant a lull in the persecution of Christians or perhaps to judge from Ignatius’s use of the word peace elsewhere a return of the community to concord after some religious dissension.
In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius asked to have a deacon appointed to bring the people of Antioch the congratulations of the church of Smyrna and to encourage other churches to follow Smyrna’s example. Sometime later Polycarp wrote to the church of Philippi in Macedonia for news about Ignatius and his companions, who had recently passed through their city.
The group left Smyrna by boat to Troas, where Ignatius wrote three more epistles to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnans, and finally one to Polycarp. He wanted to address the multitudes in Troas, but the guards were finally impatient to get to Rome. The 123-day-long festivities planned by Trajan were wrapping up. They left Troas, went by foot to Epirus and then by ship to cross the Adriatic. Ignatius wanted to stop at Puteoli, where the apostle Paul of Tarsus (d. 67 CE) had lived, but a storm blew up and they had to pass on to Rome.When they reached Rome, Ignatius was brought to the Roman arena just in time for the last days of the festival, and there he was thrown into the beasts' den where he was torn to pieces. According to the "Martyrium Ignatii," before Ignatius died he increasingly invoked the name of Jesus, explaining to tormenters that he was "the God-bearer" and Jesus's name was written on his heart. When his heart was cut open, the story says, all of the pieces had the name of Jesus Christ written on them in gold letters.
The pieces of Ignatius' broken body were collected and wrapped in linen and taken back to Antioch by the deacon of Cicilia Philo, and a Syrian Christian named Rheus Agathopus: (these two men are usually credited with writing the original version of the Martyrium Ignatii). He was buried outside the city gates; his body was moved to the Temple of Fortune by Theodosius II (401–450); and finally moved again to St. Clement's Basilica in Rome in 637, which is where they are said to remain to this day.