The letters of the Christian bishop St. Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. 115) are an important source of knowledge about the early Church.
Ignatius was overseer (bishop) of the Christians in Antioch in Syria during one of the persecutions that broke out while Trajan was emperor. When Ignatius was arrested, he refused to acknowledge the official gods and, not being a Roman citizen, was sentenced to die in the amphitheater in Rome. The soldiers with whom he traveled to Rome allowed him to visit some of the Christian communities along the way. The letters he sent to these groups before he died reveal many of Christianity's ideals in the early 2d century.
Ignatius was concerned that the Christian community remain united and that it preserve the faith handed down by the Apostles. He saw the pastor of the community, the bishop, as the leader of this unity in faith. "Do nothing without the bishops and presbyters," he wrote. "It is not lawful apart from the bishops either to baptize or to hold a love-feast."
Ignatius's letters also reflected the growing influence of Greek philosophical concerns over the inevitability of death. Ignatius was convinced that Christian baptism brought about a new life in Christ and that this life was eternal unless it was frustrated by sin. Because martyrdom was a way to overcome the sins committed since baptism, Ignatius wanted to be martyred in order to enter more quickly into eternal life with Christ. He said that if the animals in the amphitheater were not hungry he would urge them on. "Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain unto God. I am God's wheat, and I am ground by the wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ," he wrote to the Christians in Rome.
Some of Ignatius's language had the ring of the Greek mystery religions about it. He called the Eucharist the "mystery" of Christ's body and blood and said it was "the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death." The Eucharist, he wrote, is a spiritual food which strengthens the one who receives it and helps him into eternal life.
Ignatius was an intelligent and articulate leader who would rather die than compromise his faith. The Roman officials saw him as a disruptive influence in an empire which valued the pagan religious rites of Rome as a politically unifying force. Christians have considered Ignatius of Antioch a Father of the Church.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, pray for us!