The Memorial of St. Ignatius of
This St. Ignatius lived some fourteen centuries before St. Ignatius
of Loyola. Indeed, he was born in Syria only five years after the death
and resurrection of Jesus. The main thing we know about him is that
he made a trip from Antioch to Rome under a guard of ten Roman soldiers,
to be martyred, around 107, in the Coliseum. The seven letters he wrote
on the way remain classics of early Christian literature. The readings
that the Church picks for his memorial catch the vision that illuminates
why a man would walk so confidently into the teeth of lions to meet his Master.
Let’s read the passage chosen from the Gospel of John. It uses language
very startling to our modern ears.
“Amen, amen, I say to you unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and
dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much
fruit.” To help explain the meaning of his death, Jesus notes the productivity
of death in the world of nature. Seeds really do have to die, break
open, under the ground before they can germinate. Though corpses don’t
bloom like daisies, Jesus’ death leads to the emergence of a transformed
body after his crucifixion. And of course that leads to applications
about us, who purport to be Jesus’ followers.
The next verse makes exactly that application: “Whoever loves his life loses
it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal
life.” On the face of it, that statement sounds psychologically unhealthy.
Are we not supposed to love our life? And don’t we worry about
a friend who states that he hates his life? We need to go beyond the
apparent surface here. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, “this
world” often means the realm of unbelief, and “eternal life” means more than
“endless life”; in this Gospel eternal life means “the eon life”—that is,
the life of the “new age” that one is “born into” by accepting Jesus as sent
by the Father to be the light of the world. As all the gospels and
the letters of Paul make clear, the Christian life entails dying to one way
of being in the world (being organized totally around promoting the self)
in order to live with a new set of relationships to God, world, self and
Part of the power of St. Ignatius’ testimony on the road to his literal bloody
martyrdom is the way they demonstrate the freedom a Christian can have when
he or she truly dies to the world of unbelief and lives out this new set
of (eternal, or new eon) relationships. Physical death becomes a gate to
continue that new set of relationships already begun in this life. Even
if our next trip is as mundane as the morning commute to work, if we have
died the way Jesus is talking about, we can live and love with the freedom
and joy of this first-century bishop on the road to the Coliseum.