Since I know you are full of God I have exhorted you briefly. Remember me in your prayers so that I may attain to God, and remember the church in Syria, from which I am not worthy to be called.
– St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Magnesians 14
In honor of the feast today of of one of my favorite saints, Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch, I’m very happy to give you a sneak preview of my forthcoming book Bearing God: What a First Century Syrian Martyr Teaches Us About Life in Christ, which is currently due out in Summer 2017. This is from the prologue:
Prologue: Why I Love St. Ignatius of Antioch
Before we get to the real content of this book on the Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch, I wanted to begin by saying something about how I came to be fascinated by this saint, which will in turn lead us to the purpose and method for this book.
Until I was twenty-two years old, I had never heard of St. Ignatius of Antioch. By that point, I had actually heard of precious few saints whose names weren’t in the Bible. But the name Ignatius came into my consciousness in 1997, which was the year that I first heard about something called the Orthodox Church—or, if I had heard of it before, it had not really risen to the level of something I spent any time thinking about. In that year, I did start thinking about the Orthodox Church, though, and that thinking, along with a lot of reading, led me to discover Ignatius of Antioch.
By the time I came upon Ignatius, I had already read about the many differences that Orthodoxy had with the Evangelical Protestantism in which I was raised. And the “cognitive dissonance” that takes place when you read things that take apart your whole religious worldview was firmly in place. I was fast coming to a point where I had to decide either to stop reading about Orthodoxy or to consider making some decisions that would alter the direction of my life. That was the point I began reading the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.
Up to that point, what I’d read about the Orthodox Church was largely factual—what the Church believes, what worship looks like, etc. But as I began exploring the letters of Ignatius, I listened to the words of a man who was living this very unfamiliar spiritual life. This was what being a Christian meant for him—he gives a very first-person, very “lived-in” impression. And as I compared what I was reading from Ignatius at the dawn of the second century to what I was reading about the Orthodox Church at the twilight of the twentieth, I realized that they were the same thing. Ignatius was an Orthodox Christian.
As I read, that’s when it fully sank in that the kind of Christianity he was describing was truly not my own. And then what occurred to me was that, if this man was actually a member of the New Testament Church itself, actually a direct disciple of the Apostles of Jesus, then that meant that, when he described a Christianity that was not like my own, one that in many points contradicted my own, that he was right and I was wrong. As a disciple of the Apostles, a first-generation member of the New Testament Church, he had an authority that was not possessed by anyone I had ever met.
Ignatius is the man who made ancient, historic Christianity real for me, and he was also the man who forced me to make a decision about whether I was going to be part of that faith or remain outside it. So it was that I decided to become Orthodox. I was convinced not by some fast-talking apologist trying to get me to join his church, but rather by the words of a witness to the vitality of the Christian life taught by the Apostles, from a time before all the competing schisms, heresies and denominations that are taken as the norm in our own time.
Over the years that have followed that experience, I’ve returned to the letters of Ignatius again and again. In their pages, I have many times been reconfirmed in the choice that I had made, but I also have found there a fountain of theology, practical wisdom and encouragement that has watered my own life as a Christian. I have a great affection for this saint, and I even gave my first son “Ignatius” as one of his middle names.
So that leads us to the nature of this present work. I am not a specialist in St. Ignatius, nor am I a patristics scholar. I’m an Orthodox Christian and a pastor, and my appropriation of the writings of this great saint is on those terms. The questions I ask of Ignatius are not just in terms of an apologetic for Orthodoxy’s authenticity as the continuation of the early Church but also in terms of what his words mean for us in our spiritual lives in the Church. There is a lot of practical advice there, and there is also some serious theology there to shape our knowledge of God so that we, like him, can become “God-bearers.”