A Message from Father Nick 32
Handing on the message
It is a famous Gospel scene: Jesus shows a little child to his disciples. Unless they change and become like this little child he tells them, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven. According to early legend the child was a boy called Ignatius who became a pupil of St John the apostle and who grew up to be bishop of Antioch in Syria, the city where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians”. Ignatius of Antioch was a real person, but our enduring image of him seems to be a case of fact and legend intertwining.
The information we have of this earliest phase of our history inevitably produces such a mixture. Nevertheless, it gives us precious glimpses of the Gospel being “handed on” (which of course is what our word “Tradition” means). Famously, the apostle John lived into late old age and is remembered as having taught another boy in the region of Ephesus. This boy was St Polycarp of Smyrna, (Izmir in modern Turkey) who also became a bishop and who lived to the age of eighty-six. The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of our great ancient documents. It is the earliest authentic account of Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament and can be dated to between 155 and 177 AD.
But the story does not end there. Polycarp as an old man is remembered as a teacher in his turn. He taught the young Irenaeus, who left Asia Minor for Gaul, where he became bishop of Lyons. St Irenaeus is the first one we know to have insisted that all four canonical gospels are essential for our faith, and we believe that he was martyred at the beginning of the third century. Irenaeus – Polycarp – John form a kind of human chain which takes us directly back to Jesus and illustrates the meaning of “apostolic succession”. (The presence of Irenaeus in Gaul also helps to explain elements of eastern influence among the Celts.}
Ignatius of Antioch too was a genuinely important figure. Sentenced to death during the persecution of Trajan, he was taken as a prisoner to Rome for execution in the public games. On his journey he wrote letters to the local churches he passed. We still have seven of them (including one to Polycarp) which remain a priceless record of early Church thinking. Ignatius emphasises the divinity of Christ; the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon; the importance of unity through the Eucharist; and the mystery of martyrdom – in fact, he reflects on this mystery in words which might seem rather too enthusiastic for our taste. We believe that he was killed c.107AD, perhaps in the larger Circus Maximus rather than the Colosseum. He writes:
“Here and now, as I write in the fullness of life, I am yearning for death with all the passion of a lover. Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father’. There is no pleasure for me in any meats that perish, or in the delights of this life; I am fain for the bread of God, even the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for my drink I crave that blood of his, which is love imperishable.”
Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans (Feast day 17th October)