Though I first encountered the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch in my church history classes in college and graduate school, my strongest memory is the summer course I spent painstakingly translating them from the Greek. Alongside the headaches I developed each day from a combination of my dyslexia and unfamiliarity with some verb tenses, I recall the sweet relief of familiar words. When St. Ignatius mentioned the common language of faith, I could put my slow barbarian mouth around the words at last. It’s that experience that made me treasure the continuity between the New Testament scriptures and the prayers of the Church and the ideas in St. Ignatius’ letters.
Perhaps because it was so hard won, my understanding of the letters as representing continuity with tradition is the standard I take into any writings about the letters. In many ways, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s book Bearing God: The Life and Works of St. Ignatius of Antioch the God-Bearer did not disappoint. Especially for Christians unfamiliar with the saint and those trained in thought traditions that value contrasts as teaching points, this book offers a solid grounding in the context and basic meanings of the letters. Fr. Andrew does a great job in pointing out the continuity between the practices in the letters and present day Orthodox Christian worship. Though he does not spend a great deal of time explaining pietas — the religion-drenched culture of the Roman Empire at the time — beyond inviting readers to think of it along the lines of patriotism, he draws a great many helpful connections between the life of St. Ignatius, his letters, and the Christian scriptural language that will be familiar to most of his readers.
The only thing I wish there were more of is an assumption of continuity with St. Ignatius’ own received tradition. In a few places, the teaching method of contrast actually obscures meaning. For instance, early Christian martyrs did not understand themselves in opposition to the earlier Maccabean martyrs, but as inheritors of the same courageous faith in the same God (though the Christians saw themselves as recipients of a fuller revelation of God’s nature). That sort of attention to the details of continuity help the reader of the letters to avoid modern pitfalls, such as that of assuming that cowering fear in the face of public death is a certainty. It wasn’t a certainty to the early martyrs or the Maccabean martyrs. While Fr. Andrew points to the courage and does not at all fall into the modern assumptions about suffering, it might have helped his point along to point out some of these continuous traditions.
“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.” Letter to the Romans, Section 4.
In the most iconic passage of the letters – literally rendered in icons of St. Ignatius between two devouring lions – more attention to the continuity of St. Ignatius’ language with the tradition of typology would have taken Fr. Andrew’s explanation from encouraging to sublime. While I have no objection to the direction that Fr. Andrew takes in his well-versed section on the Eucharist, the corrective lessons he draws out for modern Christians leave out one glorious truth that can only be accessed through a turn to Ignatius’ own received tradition.
The early Christians loved patterns as ways to understand the way God’s revelation for our salvation. This love of patterns, or typology, was already traditional by the time of the Apostle Paul’s letters, where we see, for instance, the reference to Christ as the rock that followed the Hebrews through the desert in their exodus from Egypt. It’s also the key to the summarily beautiful passage in St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans. Here is what his listeners would have heard:
- Genesis 1:11 (OSB) Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the herb of grass, bearing seed according to its kind and likeness.”
- John 12:24 (OSB) Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.
- The feeding of the five thousand from the multiplication of already baked bread.
- I Corinthians 5 Christ as the Passover
- The Lord’s Supper, where He called the bread His own body.
If we assume – as I believe we should- that St. Ignatius was continuing the line of received typological tradition and adding to it to show us a truth about martyrdom, here’s what he’s saying: Just as God made the plants to bear seed after their kind, and each plant bears many more seeds like the one from which it grew, and just as the Lord said that He would bring forth many more members after His death, and just as the Lord was able to multiple the wheat even after it had been baked into bread, and just as the Lord was even Himself present in the bread, so I will by my martyrdom become the bread of God, strengthening the Church and multiplying the bread of God even after I am eaten.
Martyrdom is the endcap to the seed in Genesis. God creates seeds, grows them, multiplies them even after they are baked, and do not fear! He can even multiply the bread of God after it is eaten.
To go with this sturdy and edifying introduction to St. Ignatius, I have chosen one of the few non-wine drinks available in St. Ignatius’ time and place: chamomile tea. I chose it also because it’s a good tea to drink in the evening with your book group as you study this book. The tea has the fragrance of green apples, and a little tea cupful goes a long way. I like to use whole chamomile flowers in a 2-cup pot. Add one handful of dried flowers to a pot. Steep in almost- boiling water for 5 minutes and serve immediately. It’s also good at room temperature when you notice that you forgot to finish your tea as you were reading.
I received a free copy of this book in expectation of my honest review.
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