During my first semester of seminary we had a course in early Church history. This course was taught by the Dean of Studies, Fr. Palardy. Fr. Palardy was a brilliant scholar earning his undergraduate degree from Harvard in just three years before entering the seminary and he was also a diehard Red Sox fan. You always knew when the Red Sox were playing because on game days you could see red socks poking out from beneath his black pants. He did that to goad the Yankee fans in our class. And they were goaded. Very early on in the course when we were beginning to learn about the Church Fathers he brought in an icon of St. Ignatius of Antioch. This icon, he told us, hung above his desk and it showed St. Ignatius standing between two lions. One lion is biting into Ignatius’ neck while the other lion is biting into his leg, not very inspiring. On tough days, however, Fr. Palardy told us that he would look at this icon and think to himself, “It’s not so bad.” Maybe we all need this icon.
St. Ignatius was a disciple of St. John the evangelist. He learned the faith from the man who rested his head upon the heart of our Lord. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch for forty years before being arrested and martyred for being a Christian. After his arrest he was interrogated and at this questioning he was asked, “Do you worship as God this Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate?” Ignatius immediately answers, “Yes” and then he added, “By his death Jesus has crucified both sin and its author, and has proclaimed that all malice of the devil should be trodden under foot by those who bear Him in their hearts.” This prompted the government official to ask, “Do you really carry this Jesus about within you?” Ignatius answers, “Yes, for it is written that Jesus said, ‘I will dwell within them and I will walk with them.’” For this testimony and for refusing to worship the false gods of Rome, Ignatius was sent to Rome to be killed by wild animals. He was to be killed for the entertainment of the Roman crowds. He would later say, “I am God’s grain and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
This statement of Jesus which Ignatius repeats to the interrogator, “I will dwell in them and walk with them” was prophesied by Jeremiah 700 years earlier at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction when its leading citizens were forced into exile. We heard it in the first reading, “The days are coming says the Lord when I will make a new covenant… I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts.” This passage from Jeremiah has sometimes been called the Gospel before the Gospel and it’s a landmark in Old Testament theology.
Jesus fulfilled this new and everlasting covenant the night before he died and we hear His words at every Mass. When I’m bowed over the chalice I repeat the words of Jesus saying, “Take this all of you, and drink from it, for this is the Chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is a pledge of mutual love and a wedding vow is being made, our Lord is saying to each and every one of us with this covenant, “I’m yours and you’re mine.”
The Jewish people of the Old Testament found it hard to follow the law. They couldn’t live up to it. And they repeatedly failed. But Jeremiah predicts that one day God will write the law on their heart and then they’ll be able to fulfill the law. Jesus speaks this new covenant at the Last Supper speaking the words over the cup of his blood, the cup of his life. Jesus Christ is the Law made flesh. And every time we take Him into our bodies, every time we take him into our souls we are becoming more and more conformed to the Law which is being more and more written into our hearts. The Eucharist Christifies us, the Eucharist conforms us to His life. When we consume the Eucharist we are not only taking in our Lord, we are also taking into ourselves the Law made flesh and He now dwells within our hearts.
The law that was once written on tablets of stone but now through Christ it’s being written within the flesh of our hearts and we carry this law wherever we go and this gives us a responsibility. St. Ignatius was a writer and we still have seven of his letters. And they’re very important letters giving us a glimpse of early Christianity. At the time the Canon of the Bible was being assembled some thought his letters should be included. I urge you to read them. To the Ephesians Ignatius wrote of the Holy Eucharist, calling it the flesh of Christ, the Gift of God, and the Medicine of Immortality. And to receive the Eucharist is to make us beholden to our neighbor. And he wrote this about our neighbor: “In face of their outbursts of wrath be meek; in face of their boastful words be humble; meet their reviling with prayers; where they are in error be steadfast in faith; in face of their fury be gentle. Be not eager to retaliate upon them. Let our forbearance prove us their brethren. Let us endeavor to be imitators of the Lord that no rank weed of the Devil is found in you. But in all purity and sobriety abide in Christ Jesus in flesh and in spirit.” Let Christ live within your heart.
St. Ignatius was martyred within a Roman amphitheater in the year AD 107. He was killed by hungry lions as the crowds cheered. But he lives on not only in his letters but more importantly he lives on in the eternal bliss of Heaven where he praises God and intercedes on our behalf.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley