What does it really mean to be a Christian? In other words, what does it mean to follow Christ Jesus? How do we know what is his will, and how do we act upon it? Well, first and foremost, we must acknowledge Christ. We must acknowledge Him as truly the Son of God, and we must do so before others: “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8-9). In acknowledging Christ, we must undoubtedly do so with our words, and we should not be afraid to do so. We should not fear those who can kill the body, but rather, the one who “can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28). As a matter of fact, instead of being afraid of persecution for living out the Christian life, we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14). This is the wonderful promise of redemption, and ultimately reveals the truth that Jesus, and only Jesus, can answer the suffering we experience in this world. The answer to suffering, in other words, is not to remove it from our life, but to redeem it, by uniting it to the suffering of Christ: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Today, we celebrate the feast of a true Christian, a man who followed Christ to the end, who remained “steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). This man is Saint Ignatius of Antioch.
St. Ignatius was what’s called an early Church Father, and the Church Fathers are absolutely necessary in order to understand what it means to be a Christian. The Catholic Church has, throughout the centuries, drawn on their writings for her theology, because they lived so closely to the time of Christ and were so united to the Apostles. If you have not read any of the writings of the Church Fathers, you really must do so, and St. Ignatius of Antioch is a great place to start.
St. Ignatius was born around the year 50 AD in Syria. He was the third Bishop of Antioch, immediately succeeding Evodius, who had immediately succeeded Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles. St. Peter was ultimately the first Bishop of Rome, also known as the first Pope, and was eventually martyred in what is now Vatican City. St. Peter himself appointed St. Ignatius to the See of Antioch. Because St. Ignatius received his consecration as bishop at the hands of the first pope, he was greatly honored.
During his time as Bishop of Antioch, he spent much of his time encouraging his flock to be steadfast in the face of persecution. He gave the faithful of Antioch hope during the persecutions of Emperor Dormitian, who reigned from 81-96 AD. St. Ignatius himself escaped the persecution of Dormitian, but he was not as lucky during the reign of Emperor Trajan, who was emperor shortly after Dormitian. That is, if we should consider it lucky to escape martyrdom. St. Ignatius certainly would have considered himself unlucky if he did escape! In his letter to the Romans, in which he requested that Roman Christians not try to save him from martyrdom, he said: “I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
In the year 106 AD, Trajan mandated that everyone, regardless of religious belief, give thanks to the pagan gods for the success Trajan had over the Scythians. If anyone refused to worship these pagan gods, he would be killed. In 107 AD, Trajan was passing through Antioch, and he was told that St. Ignatius openly confessed Christ and preached against these persecutions. Trajan had Ignatius brought before him, and St. Ignatius eloquently, courageously, and even joyfully, rebuked the emperor and welcomed the threat of martyrdom. Trajan ordered that St. Ignatius be chained and brought to Rome, to be fed to beasts in the Coliseum. To this day, his relics are in the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome.
One thing that is so clearly exemplified in St. Ignatius’s writings is the presence of Catholic doctrine. The Early Church Fathers in general demonstrate the reality that the early Church truly was the Catholic Church, the same Catholic Church that exists to this day, but St. Ignatius is particularly important, because of his clarity, bluntness, and temporal proximity to the Apostles. To take just one quote from his writings, he states in his letter to the Philadelphians:
Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom. If anyone walks in the way of heresy, he is out of sympathy of the Passion. Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. In that way whatever you do is in line with God’s will.
Let’s go back now to our initial question: What does it mean to follow Christ, and how do we know what is his will? Here, St. Ignatius gives a synopsis of what this means and how to live that out practically. He states very bluntly that those who join schismatic groups, in other words, those who break off from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by Christ, will not inherit God’s kingdom. The way one knows whether they are in a schismatic group, according to St. Ignatius, is if they are out of communion with the bishops appointed by the Church Christ founded. He states that people who break communion with the Church are separated from Christ’s passion, which is the only means of salvation. In addition, he notes the absolute necessity of observing the truth of the real, not symbolic, presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He states that the Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of our Lord, and that we must be very careful to make sure we are acknowledging that reality, in accordance with the words of Jesus Christ Himself and the Church he founded.
This quote also demonstrates the hierarchical nature of the early Christian Church, which had an episcopate (the bishops), presbyterate (the priests), and the diaconate (the deacons), which is the exact structure that exists to this day in the Catholic Church, and all of the apostolic Churches, the Orthodox included. This is why reading the Church Fathers is so necessary: We must know how to follow Christ, not only in the way we ourselves interpret Scripture, but in the way that Christ himself intended us to follow him. And a good way to know how he intended us to follow him is to look and see what the earliest Christians thought, because they lived and worked with the Apostles.
Furthermore, if you find yourself in fear over the times we are living in, over the hostility to the Christian faith that pervades our culture, I want to encourage you. Do not be afraid. Do not worry about what people say about you for living out your faith. It is only natural that following Christ, we too, should be persecuted, just as He was: “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first” (John 15:18). Go out there and proclaim the truth, and proclaim it boldly, because if people do not know now, they will eventually, and now is better than later: “God greatly exalted him, and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 4:9-11).