A Witness to the Eucharist in the Early Church: St. Ignatius of Antioch

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, perhaps one of the most prominent Christian figures during the early Church. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, and was appointed Bishop of Antioch by the Apostle Peter himself.[1] This close association with the apostles, along with the fact that he was willing to die as a martyr for Christ (during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajan, A.D. 98-117), shows that he is a faithful and trustworthy witness to the truth of Christ.

Sometime between A.D. 107 and 110, he was brought to Rome and killed by being torn apart by beasts (most likely lions) in the Roman amphitheater.[2] On his way to Rome, though, Ignatius wrote Seven Epistles (letters) to the communities he visited, and was even allowed some visitors.[3] In these letters, we find evidence that the early Christians believed in the True Presence of the Eucharist, and we see Ignatius draw a beautiful parallel between the sacrifice of the Eucharist and his own martyrdom. And even while the celebration of the Eucharist may have differed slightly in practice during the very early years of the church, through Ignatius’ letters we can see how the essential beliefs have never changed in the Catholic Church.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans

Along the way to Rome, Ignatius visited Smyrna (whose Bishop Polycarp he also wrote a letter to, and who would later become a martyr as well).[4] Ignatius wrote a letter to the Smyrnaeans which focused on how to address some of the false beliefs of some groups who were challenging the Christians at the time.

In particular, Ignatius advised them how to deal with those who said that Christ was not truly human, that he had not risen bodily from the dead. These Docetists, who believed that Christ was not really human but only purely Divine,[5] thus were also among those who denied the True Presence of the Eucharist, that the bread and wine Christians offered in memory of Christ was truly His body and blood.

What Ignatius says about this group makes it clear that the Christians he was addressing believed in the True Presence. About those people who did not believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, he says: “They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised.” He even goes on to emphasize that, “Consequently those who wrangle and dispute God’s gift [of the Eucharist] face death.” [6] Thus, Ignatius not only warned against this false belief—his tone implies that the True Presence was already an assumed belief for the Christians at the time, and that acceptance of this belief was imperative. The question was merely how to treat those heretics who did not believe this in union with the Church.

Also, one of the very reasons that Christians were persecuted was because of “distorted reports of the Eucharistic rite” that accused Christians of cannibalism, of “killing children, eating their flesh and drinking their blood.”[7]  Would the pagans have come to such a misconception if the Christians had merely proclaimed that the Eucharist was merely a symbol? Evidently, such rumors only came about because the Christians believed that they truly received the flesh and blood of Christ.

Letter to the Romans

On the other hand, Ignatius wrote his letter to Rome to urge them to not attempt to save him, but to allow him to die as an offering to God and a witness to the Faith.[8] He creates a beautiful metaphor of his martyrdom, mirroring Christ’s sacrifice present in the Eucharist. He describes himself as an offering, saying: “Let me be fodder for wild beasts—that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.”[9] One can clearly see (knowing from his Letter to the Smyrnaeans that they believed in the True Presence) that he showed his love for the Eucharist by offering his life in union with Christ.

The Eucharist in the Early Church versus Today

Ignatius describes the Eucharist as the “love feast,” or “agape feast,” in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans: “Without the bishop’s supervision,” he says, “no baptisms or love feasts are permitted” (as I understand it, this referred to the fact that only bishops could consecrate the Eucharist, or the priests–then called presbyters, meaning elders–whom the bishop appointed).[10] Because Ignatius uses this phrase, “love feast,” without any explanation, this implies that it was already a common term among the Christians. And since agape was the Greek word for the highest form of love given only by and to God, evidently this name “agape feast” reflects how God, love itself, offers Himself to His Church in the form of food.

However, this celebration of the Eucharistic Feast differed a little in practice from the way Catholics celebrate it today:  

“In the early decades it took the form of a meal with eating and drinking and concluded with the blessing of bread and wine. By the end of the first century a ritual meal had begun to be celebrated separately, though at one place Ignatius refers to the ‘love feast,’ by which he apparently meant a meal followed by the blessing of the bread and the cup.”[11]

By the second century, though, the Eucharist was celebrated as part of a larger ceremony, which was in all its essential elements the same as the Catholic Mass today, with readings from the Scriptures and psalms, a homily from the Bishop, prayers for the faithful, and the greeting “kiss” between the members of the Church (now the “sign of peace”).[12]

Thus, St. Ignatius’ writings are just one example showing that, even while certain practices in exactly how we have celebrated the Mass have changed throughout history, it has remained essentially the same since the early centuries; and, most importantly, Christ’s Church has always held the fundamental belief of the True Presence of the Eucharist.

Article Image: “St. Ignatius of Antioch Attacked by Lions,” Fresco by Pierleone Ghezzi, Circa 1700-21, Church of St. Clement, Rome https://www.christianiconography.info/sanClemente/ignatiusGhezzi.html

[1] John Bonaventure O’Connor. “St. Ignatius of Antioch.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 17 Oct. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07644a.htm&gt;.

[2] John Laux, Church History (Charlotte, NC: TAN, 2012), 49.

[3] Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2012), 28-29.

[4] Ibid 28.

[5] Laux 49.

[6] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” trans. Cyril Richardson, orderofstignatius.org, Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, https://www.orderofstignatius.org/files/Letters/Ignatius_to_Smyrnaeans.pdf.

[7] Laux 44.

[8] Wilken 28.

[9] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Romans,” trans. Cyril Richardson, orderofstignatius.org, Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, https://www.orderofstignatius.org/files/Letters/Ignatius_to_Romans.pdf.

[10] “Letter to the Smyrnaeans.”

[11] Wilken 33.

[12] Ibid. 34

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