Take a personal interest in those you talk to, just as God does. – Ignatius to Polycarp
I had a lot of trouble understanding Ignatius and thought there wasn’t much there until I understood how to read his letters. His letters haven’t been preserved because of his deep thought, but rather for what they reveal of the man himself. I should have realized this. I’ve read Tolkien’s letters and in them is revealed no great idea, but it is a revelation about the kind of person it took to write the Lord of the Rings. Leaf by Niggle helps, but when you read how he had to go back and calculate at one point the phase of the moon his characters were under because he was afraid he’d gotten it wrong, you have a clearer idea of the man. That’s, I think, chiefly the value of Ignatius’ correspondence. He’s an extraordinary man dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
Think about it: he was on his way to be eaten alive by wild beasts. He is eager for it, but he also manifests a deep ambivalence. At some level of his being he is decidedly anxious about the ordeal. He is also something else: he’s deeply moved by the kindness and solicitude of the Christians in Asia Minor. I think that’s why he spontaneously writes ahead to the Romans. If they start thinking of ways to overwhelm him with kindness in his trial (chained and with ten uncongenial guards, far from home and family and friends, traveling toward the hostility of a roaring coliseum, wondering what the best position to take before lions streaking toward one over the hot sand, or will it be elephants–what does one think of in regard to that?), if the Roman Christians hear of him, as the Smyrnean and Ephesian and others have, what kindness will they not accomplish? Polycarp kissed his chains! And if there are influential persons among the Romans, could they not possibly in their good will secure his release?
If that accounts for what is going through Ignatius’ mind, then the question is, why does he want to reach the goal? He writes not only to the Romans but also in several other letters asking that nobody hinder him. Why does he view the possibility of his release as a hindrance rather than deliverance? Because ambivalent as he may be, he feels deep down that this will be the true test. He’s not entirely sure of the outcome, but he hopes that the work begun in him will be genuine and the test will prove it. And this becomes the attraction of his letters: what kind of man must this be? Why does he think he must go through with this? What is this strange attitude toward suffering?
These letters are full of the affections Ignatius feels. As well, because when all things are about to be taken away the important things suddenly become clear, we can be pretty sure that what he talks about is what is important to him. There is a sense in which Ignatius believed he was not only dying for Christ, but for the Lord’s people. His view of the bishop as being in some sense the church leads me to think that he believes he himself is being offered up for all his brethren. He believes has been chosen not only to satisfy the wrath of the Emperor and the world against which they exist, a precious and close community, but also to vindicate that community by showing how vital and strong it’s faith is. He is confident not that he has strength, but that he has been chosen and will be given through the ministrations of the community, their prayers, and the help of God, whatever is required.
The church in which Origen grew up defined itself not only by its commitment to the rule of faith, but by radical demands for Christian commitment. . . . A leitmotiv of second-century Christian literature is the veneration of martyrdom as the ultimate expression of Christian commitment.
What Ignatius did was shape the attitude of a church that had to face two more centuries of being unofficial, of local, spontaneous, and sometimes widespread and dire persecution. And what he did was to shape the attitude of that church toward martyrdom, so that martyrdom became representative and also a vocation. His warmth, his sometimes bumbling but always characteristic expression, his care for others when he was in dire straits, his identification with believers, his attention to the needs of their pastors and their congregations, how obviously he was touched by their kindness, his impatience with Judaizers and Docetists, all these things spoke to the situation the early church faced. We may not know that much about Ignatius now, not read him very much. But in the early church they gathered those precious letters and read and re-read them.