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December 20, 2011

The Theology of Saint Ignatius the God-bearer

Today, my beloved Christians, our holy Church celebrates the memory of St. Ignatius the God-bearer, bishop of Antioch. This bishop is called "God-bearer" because, according to tradition, he was the child that we read of in the Gospels that Jesus placed in the midst of the disciples and said: "Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:1-3).

Therefore, since the Saint was brought forth by Christ in His hands as a child, so he is called "God-bearer". As for his life we do not know much. We know however that he gave a strong testimony for his faith in Christ to the Emperor Trajan. And for his testimony was led bound by guard soldiers from Antioch to Rome, to be eaten by wild beasts. Along the way from Antioch to Rome he wrote seven letters, famous letters, which have very beautiful theological teaching. Concerning this teaching of St. Ignatius the God-bearer I want, my beloved, to offer a few words in my sermon today.

1. In the days of St. Ignatius there was a great heresy, the heresy of Docetism. They said that Christ was not incarnated in actuality, that He did not receive a real human body, but was a phantasm. And St. Ignatius, although he was very sweet and very humble, for those heretics he expressed himself with very seething expressions. He calls them "wolves in sheeps clothing", "bad herbs", "seed of the evil one" and "anthropomorphic beasts." Indeed such were the Docetists and such are the heretics of all ages, including the Papists. And against the heretics we should speak strongly, according to the example of St. Ignatius and all the holy Fathers of the Church. We must be very careful of heretics, St. Ignatius tells us, because they speak surreptitiously. They offer their bitter poison with honey, he says, and thus mislead the ignorant and lure them into error (cf. Trallians 6). According to the faith of our Church, contrary to what the Docetic heretics said, Jesus Christ the Son of God was truly man incarnate in the holy womb of the Panagia Theotokos. That's why St. Ignatius in his letters (cf. Ephesians 7.2) named Jesus Christ both "by God" and "by Mary" begotten. He names Him both "passionless" and "passionate". "Passionless" because He was God and "passionate" because He was a man.

2. Since Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, in one word the God-man, that which we commune of during the Divine Liturgy is truly "the Flesh of Christ which suffered" (Smyrneans 7.1), and is the same Blood of Christ shed on Golgotha on Good Friday. Concerning Holy Communion St. Ignatius makes some very beautiful statements, brethren. He says it is the "medicine of immortality", "the antidote to not die". This means that for the sins we do, that bring to us the death of our soul, for an "antidote" to not die, we must commune during the Divine Liturgy of the Body and Blood of Christ. That's why the priest when he communes the faithful, he says: "For life eternal and immortal." For those who commune with a pure heart, St. Ignatius the God-bearer says they become "God-bearing", "Christ-bearing", "temple-bearing" and "holiness-bearing" (Ephesians 9.2)!

3. St. Ignatius is the first to name our Church "Catholic" (Smyrneans 8.2), the name which we hear in our Creed when we say "In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." So the Papists are not Catholic, as they want to be called because of their worldly pursuits to spread everywhere, but we, the Orthodox are the actual members of the real Catholic Church. But what is the Church, my brethren? Concerning the Church St. Ignatius says it is the "table of sacrifice" (Ephesians 5.10; Trallians 7.2), that is the Holy Altar, that is the Divine Liturgy which occurs on the Holy Altar. Thus in the Divine Liturgy we receive the essential meaning of what is the Church. And I say now: Since we cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy together with the Papists, are they not the Papal Church? Only the Orthodox are the Church, which is why we say "In ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church". According to St. Ignatius, the terms and the conditions that someone belongs in the Church is the unity with the Bishop of the local Church which he resides in (Smyrneans 8.1; 9.1; Philadelphians 3.2).

4. Finally, St. Ignatius gives a nice explanation for the engagement of the Virgin Panagia with Joseph, which I want to tell you my brethren. Why did our Panagia get engaged to Joseph, since her purpose was to be a virgin? This happened, according to St. Ignatius, according to the wise plan of God to deceive the Devil. For the Devil heard the prophecy of Isaiah that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (see Isa. 7:14). The thrice-cursed Devil had no interest in the birth of the Messiah, because he would have destroyed his works (cf. 1 John 3:8). So when the Virgin Mary became engaged to Joseph, the Devil thought that not even she will be the Mother of the Messiah, after having become engaged. Just as he deceived the First-Formed and urged them to eat of the bitter fruit, so he was now deceived! And the same deception happened at the death of Christ. St. Ignatius speaks of three "mysteries to be cried aloud", the virginity of Mary and the birth and death of Christ, that "God worked in quietness" (cf. Ephesians 19.1).

With many prayers,

† The Bishop of Gortyna and Megalopolis Jeremiah

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos