Saturday 31 January 2015

Saint Ignatius of Antioch: Saint or Sinner?

The  Willing Martyr

I first noticed Saint Ignatius  in Plataniotissa in the small stone church adjacent to the famous tree.(see Plataniotissa in 'Oddball Churches'). It is almost ‘life size’ and hidden away in the diaconion, the area to the right behind the iconostasis where the priest dresses for the liturgy. Aside from that interesting ‘letter box’ hole whose function still remains a tantalizing mystery, I found myself admiring this colourful  tableau just as a piece of oddball art. The upright old man looks stern but not nearly as disconcerted as he should be with two lions gnawing away at his shoulders.  Of course icons are not supposed to represent worldly struggle and horror since they represent the world after the reincarnation, so Ignatius’ lack of emotion is expected but still, this little scene, as painted by the anonymous artist, is quite gripping. The sense of an act stopped in medias res is particularly strong.

The doe-eyed lions stare straight at the viewer and seem a tad confused as if, while certainly carefully placed in this weird scenario, they are not quite sure what to do next and are waiting for a cue from the director before he calls ‘cut’. 

I wondered what someone would make of those lion ‘hands’ grasping Ignatius’ upper arms. They seem human. One lion even appears to have a cuff. You could almost imagine this was a costume party with dress up lions – until you look at the lion’s feet. 

What is happening here is that Saint Ignatius in his bishop’s garb and with Bible held aloft, is willingly sacrificing himself in order to be with God sooner rather than later. His most famous quote says it all: 

"I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." Letter to the Romans

It’s is a shocking statement and seems almost blasphemous today. His eyes are alight with absolute certainty. His raised right hand looks more like a farewell wave intended for those unfortunate enough to be left behind in this sorry world than a simple blessing. Those lions are the necessary ‘fifth business’ that will send him to Glory. 

What Led Up To This Dramatic Climax?

 Our scene takes place circa 112 AD so we are dealing with an early martyr. Ignatius was a disciple of Peter and Paul and became the third bishop of Antioch – an important See in those days. He came a cropper with the Romans because of his refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods.

The Romans Face the Threat of a New Religion

The Romans just didn’t get Christianity, or Judaism either for that matter. Their own religion was polytheistic and, in their eyes, there was always room for one more deity. 
They often raised a statue to the ‘unknown’ god just to be sure they were not committing an insult to one left out by oversight. The Jews with their one god and their resulting refusal to pay even lip service to the others had exasperated them and this new Jewish sect worshipping a messiah named ‘Crestus’ was equally mystifying – and potentially seditious.  The multi-ethnic empire was held together by Roman law, the offer of citizenship to all, and a cult of the Emperor superimposed on all worship, intended to create a layer of religious cohesion throughout their territory, to act both de facto and de jure as recognition of their suzerainty. It was not overstressed. Obedience to their cultural norm and the proper form was required, not belief. 

Christians, of course, did not intend to nor could they, according to their creed, worship any god but their own. They even refused to sacrifice animals in the temple and so the entire section of the economy based sacrifice and subsequent meat distribution suffered whenever there were a significant number of Christians in a town or city. Not only that, the cult was growing; they stuck to themselves, supported each other in adversity, and by their strange and alien ways threatened the status quo. It was unsettling… 

Pliny the Younger Governor of Bithynia (in present day Turkey) wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan asking advice about these Christians who refused to worship the emperor as a god. 


-I have never in the past been present at the investigations into Christians, and so I am at a loss to know the nature and extent of the normal questions and punishments.

-I have also been seriously perplexed whether age should make some difference…  Should the young be treated in exactly the same way as the more mature?
-Should the penitent be pardoned, or should no mercy be shown a man who has recanted if he has really been a Christian? 

-Should the mere name be reason enough for punishment however free from crime a man may be, or should only the sins and crimes that attend the name be punished?
-Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released, provided that they called on the gods in my presence, and offered incense and wine to your statue. 

Pliny was as confused as the lions in our icon. He had even resorted to torture on occasion to get to the bottom of these beliefs. He had two slave girls, so called deaconesses, tortured (1) but confessed that even after that he could not really find any crime or evil in them except for their “depraved and groundless superstition.

Trajan’s Reply

You have acted quite properly, Pliny, in examining the cases of those Christians brought before you. Nothing definite can be laid down as a general rule. They should not be hunted out. If accusations are made and they are found guilty, they must be punished. But remember that a man may expect pardon from repentance if he denies that he is a Christian, and proves this to your satisfaction, that is by worshiping our gods, however much you may have suspected him in the past. Anonymous lists should have no part in any charge made. That is thoroughly bad practice and not in accordance with the spirit of the age.

This is a response worthy of an Obama. Trajan wanted to avoid the state to getting mixed up rigid definitions when common sense might be a better guide; he does not want to seek out wrongdoers, nor does he want any kind of witch-hunt. It was very much a don’t-ask-don’t tell policy in the hopes that this sect would see reason, make the effort to ‘fit in’ and, after that bit of lip service, worship their own god more or less as they wished. It was, in fact, an early attempt by a multi-ethnic state to try to put contentious religious issues on the sidelines by showing tolerance while still using religion as an important cultural pillar of state policy and power.

Did It Work?


 Well no. Tolerance didn’t work because Christians wanted salvation and eternal life in Paradise more than they wanted to render to Caesar what Caesar thought was his.

Ignatius was not executed immediately after his arrest. The Romans believed in due process for their own citizens and Ignatius, as a Roman citizen, took advantage of that and insisted he be tried in Rome. This allowed for a leisurely journey to Rome, a journey which gave him time, (as it had to Paul before him), to proselytize, speak with his followers and, above all to write letters, the social media of his era.

I can’t help seeing a parallel with present day western attitudes towards their own Muslim populations.  Governments want to be accommodating and liberal, even if certain sections of their population do not feel the same way.  Tolerance is both necessary and admirable, as is due process, but such policies fail in the face of fanatic believers. They may make use of the liberal laws at their disposal, but they have another agenda.

Christians have over the years made their religion a comfortable one in which fanatics are more revered on the walls of churches or as part of the glorious past than officially sanctioned or appreciated in the present. Christianity and today’s modern liberal states have had a long time to accommodate themselves to each other and make adjustments. The relationship seems to have worked, broadly at least, or, more correctly perhaps, is perceived to have worked by the majority who are proud of their Judeo-Christian heritage whether or not they attend church.(2) 

 In Greece in particular, the church and state have until now had the advantage of religious homogeneity and most Greeks see Orthodoxy as an unbroken line of successes since it became the official religion of the Roman empire.  I doubt if the priest in Plataniotissa readying himself for the liturgy and facing this image of Ignatius flinches at the sense of purpose in those eyes, the rending of cloth, the pain, and the horror of the act about to occur in this icon. It is more likely to have the force of a portrait of an older member of the board of directors in the ‘company’. And it is very unlikely, in this day and age, that he would exhort his congregation to seek a similar martyrdom – to shorten this life in order to reach the next.(3)

Most Christians have forgotten why martyrdom was admired by the early Church but for a true believer who perceived himself or herself to be in the midst of enemies and unbelievers, it had its rewards: it fulfilled a sense of personal destiny, was greatly admired by peers, ensured remembrance in this life, and an everlasting reward after death.

Ignatius wanted to die like so many of these tragic young Moslem men and women today.  And, like those early Christians, these young people are encouraged and supported by those around them. During his journey to Rome Ignatius would write again and again to his followers: I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God's sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God.

The blessing and the difference is that Christian martyrs did not always have a choice as Ignatius apparently had, and they did not generally feel compelled to take others (4) with them.

The Icon

Oddly, this is the most common form of the icon, one lion upright and one upside down, very stylized, a bit like something you might expect to find on a cameo brooch. It is horror both stylized and emotionally ‘declawed’. The lions often have a human body part – teeth, hands in otherwise animal bodies.

Sometimes the hand of God reaches out from a corner to accept Ignatius into heaven.

His Feast Day in Greece is December 20th.


(1)  The absurdity of Pliny torturing victims with the object of hearing them ‘confess’ to sins obvious, but not apparently to many modern world leaders either.  It seems to be a time honoured practice. Sad.

(2) There were some terrible glitches along the way and some nasty truths have to be ignored. We have to forget about the forced conversions of Charlemagne, the Crusades, the wars between Christian factions before and after the Reformation, not to mention sectarian violence in Ireland, and elsewhere today etc.etc. The trouble with a synergy between the church and state is that it can lead to one using the other. Politicians are very aware of this potent weapon in their demagogic arsenal.

(3) A suicide bomber just seems wrong to most of us – or any suicidal effort to shorten life.

 (4) Some Christians have had no problems taking the lives of innocent people or punishing them in the name of God. Think of those fanatics bombing abortion clinics in the U.S. Or consider the Jews, or the plight of unwed mothers vis-à-vis the Catholic church. But in our secular society, there are, happily, no longer kudos for this behaviour, except among like minded citizens.


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