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The Two-Fold Witness of St. Ignatius of Antioch By Thomas H. Hubert, Ph.D. Introduction The central theme of St. Ignatius’ seven letters, written to six churches and to his fellow bishop Polycarp prior to his second-century martyrdom, is at one level the existential meaning of martyrdom itself. As a mode of physical death, it represents a gateway to eternal life in Christ as the fulfillment of radical discipleship. It is also the supreme Christian witness.1 That, of course, is the etymology of the word “martyr.” It is a witness of oneself to one’s Faith. I contend here that Ignatius made two distinct but interrelated and inseparable witnesses: the first is the witness in ink, that is, the dictated letters; the second lies in the act of shedding his blood in the Flavian Amphitheater. The first, the witness of words, has no real power or resonance without the latter, which fulfills it; the latter, physical death, has no meaning—existential, theological—without the illumination provided by the former. I believe that the intensity with which Ignatius writes is itself sign of his fierce intentionality to make a verbal witness before and in support of his sanguinary one. I suggest further that, whether Ignatius himself was aware of such a prospect or not, the text speaks to us beyond the particular historical circumstances of its origin. It speaks richly into our lives as men and women of the 21st century who would understand what it means to follow Jesus, possibly even to the point of martyrdom, whether in the 2nd or the 21st century.2 The Value and Motivation of Martyrdom Before elaborating, though, a brief look at martyrdom and how it is traditionally valued is in order. Cardinal Donald Wuerl in his recent book on the subject has an apt summary which strikes just the right balance as to its value and the motivation potentially leading to it: “Martyrdom should be admired, and it may be desired, but it should not be sought.”3 In a word, one is not to seek it out from selfish motives. T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral reminds us, with regard to the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Beckett, that the wrong motive can be “the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”4 In Thomas’ case it was the desire for lasting glory. Beckett’s namesake, St. Thomas More, cautions as well against an eager pursuit of such a death. While imprisoned in the Tower of London waiting his sentence and ultimate execution, More wrote his classic, Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. In it he counsels: Let vs thinke thereon & prepare vs in our mynd therto long before/let vs therein conform our will vnto his/not desieryng to be brought vnto the peril of persecution. For it seemeth a prowde hyigh mynd, to desire martirdome/but desiring help & strength of god yf he suffre vs to come to the stresse, eyther beyng sought, founden, & brought out agaynst our willes/or els beyng by his commaundment/for the comfort of our cure bounden to abide.5 But when the prospect of martyrdom comes, the imperative for the Christian disciple is to run to it and in so doing run to Christ.


Chicago Studies Spring 2017  

Volume 56:1

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