December 20, 2021

The Passion of the Holy Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer (St. Justin Popovich)

By Archimandrite Justin Popovich
At the time when Trajan ascended the Roman throne,[1] Bishop Ignatius, who was the God-bearer in name and in reality, was in the Church of Antioch, having received the episcopal throne after Saint Evodius, the successor of Saint Peter the Apostle.[2]

It is said about this divine Ignatius the God-bearer that while he was still a child, and the Lord Jesus Christ lived on earth among the people and taught the people about the Kingdom of God, once Ignatius' parents with the child Ignatius stood among the people and listened to the divine words from the Savior's mouth. Looking at them, the Lord called the child Ignatius to Himself, placed him in the midst of the people, embraced him, and took him in His arms and said: "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3, 5).

Thus, Saint Ignatius would be called the God-bearer because he was carried by the hands of the incarnate God. But no less he would be called the God-bearer also because he carried God in his heart and in his mouth, as a future vessel, similar to the chosen vessel the Holy Apostle Paul, to carry the name of God before the nations and kings. He was first a disciple of Saint John the Theologian, together with Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.[3] Then, by the decision of all the holy apostles, he would be appointed Bishop of Antioch, where the name Christian first appeared (Acts 11:26).

Having received the management of the Church, Saint Ignatius invested a lot of labor and effort in preaching piety, showing apostolic zeal in everything. This holy hierarch was the first to introduce the antiphonal way of chanting in the Church, that is, chanting with two choirs, so that when the chanting stops on one side, it starts on the other. This way of chanting was revealed to Saint Ignatius among the angels in heaven. For he, having been found worthy of the divine revelation, saw angelic choirs singing alternately: when one choir sang, the other was silent, and when the other sang, the first listened; when one finished the song, the other began; and in this way angelic choirs celebrated the Holy Trinity, as if handing over one song to another.

Having received such a revelation, Saint Ignatius instituted such an order of chanting sacred songs first in his Church of Antioch, and from there this beautiful order would be accepted in all Churches. And this God-bearing bishop was a wonderful steward of ecclesiasitcal acts and a perfect servant of the mysteries of Christ; and later he became a martyr, given to beasts to eat, which will be discussed below.

In a difficult war with the Scythians,[4] Emperor Trajan won, believing that he had defeated the enemy with the help of his pagan gods. Trajan planned to thank them by offering sacrifices to them throughout his empire, so that the gods would continue to lead in his wars and reign. Then came a strong persecution of Christians. Because the emperor learned that Christians not only do not agree to offer sacrifices to pagan gods, but also blaspheme them by exposing their falsehood; therefore he issued an order: to kill Christians everywhere who disobeyed his order.

When this emperor started the second war against the Armenians and the Persians, he stayed in Antioch. Then Saint Ignatius the God-bearer would be accused before the emperor because he worshiped Christ, who wassentenced by Pilate to death and crucified on the cross as God, and prescribes laws on the preservation of virginity, contempt for wealth and all enjoyment. When Trajan heard this, he called the Saint, and before all his senate, he said to him: "You, called the God-bearer, do you oppose our order and corrupt all Antioch, leading it in the footsteps of your Christ?" - "Yes I do!" replied the divine Ignatius. The emperor asked: "What does the name "God-bearer" mean?" The Saint answered: "He who carries Christ God in his soul is a God-bearer." The emperor asked: "Do you, therefore, carry your Christ in yourself?" The Saint answered: "Indeed, for it is written: 'I will dwell in them, and live in them' (2 Cor. 6:16)." The emperor said to that: "And we, what do you think, don't we always carry our gods in our consciousness, and don't we have them as helpers against the enemy?" The God-bearer answered: "Alas, you call idols gods! In fact, One is the True God, the Creator of heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them, the One Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, and His kingdom will have no end. If you, kings, knew Him, then your porphyry and your crown and throne would be even mightier."

"Ignatius!" said the emperor", leave what you say, and listen to me: if you want to please me and include yourself among my friends, then offer a sacrifice with us to the gods, and you will immediately become the high priest of the great Zeus[5] and you will be called the father of the senate." The Saint answered: "What is the use of being the high priest of Zeus when I am the high priest of Christ, to whom I offer praise every day, and I seek to sacrifice myself for Him in imitation of His voluntary death." The emperor asked: "To whom do you want to sacrifice yourself: to the one who was nailed to the cross by Pontius Pilate?" The Saint answered: "Let me be a sacrifice to Him who crucified sin on the cross, overthrew the devil, and crushed all his power with the cross." The emperor said: "It seems to me, Ignatius, that you do not have common sense and proper reasoning; for you would not be so overwhelmed by the Christian scriptures, if you understood well how great it is to obey the emperor's orders and offer sacrifices to the gods with everyone." And the God-bearer, filled with even more fearlessness, said: "Give me to the beasts to eat! Crucify me! Deliver me over to the sword, deliver me over to the fire, I will never sacrifice to demons. I am not afraid of death, nor do I seek earthly treasure, but I only want eternal treasures and I try in all possible ways to turn to Christ my God who was willing to die for me."

Then the members of the senate, wanting to rebuke Ignatius for delusion, said: "Here you say that your God is dead. How, then, can he help those who have died, and those who have died a shameful death? Our gods are immortal and are considered immortal." The God-bearer answered: "My Lord and God Jesus Christ became man for our sake and for our salvation voluntarily received the crucifixion, death and burial, then rose again on the third day, overthrowing the devil's power, and ascended to heaven from where he descended, raising us from the fall and leading us into paradise, from which we are expelled, and gives us treasures greater than those we had before. And of the gods whom you worship, not one has done anything like that; being evil and lawless themselves, and having committed many murderous things, they left to foolish men only some insignificant idea of their divinity. And when the veil of lies fell from them, it became clear what they were, and how shamefully they ended their existence."

When Saint Ignatius said this, the emperor and the senate, fearing that he would shame their gods with his words, ordered that he be taken to prison. The emperor himself did not sleep all night thinking about what kind of death would deprive Ignatius of his life. And he thought of condemning him to being devoured by beasts, considering that death the most terrible. And the next day he informed the senate; everyone agreed with that, only advising the emperor not to betray Ignatius to the beasts of Antioch, so that he, suffering martyrdom for his faith, would not become even more famous among his fellow citizens, and that others, looking at him, would establish themselves in Christianity. Therefore, they said, Ignatius should be chained and taken to Rome and handed over to the beasts there; for there, for him, tormented by a long journey, the punishment will be even heavier; and no one will know among the Romans who he is, but will consider that one of the criminals was killed; and not the slightest memory of him will remain. This advice aligned with the will of the emperor, and he pronounced the verdict on Ignatius: that Ignatius be handed over to the beasts to eat in Rome during the festival, in the amphitheater, before the eyes of all the people. Thus the Saint would be condemned by the ungodly, to be seen by both angels and men (cf. 1 Cor 4:9).

The God-bearing Ignatius, hearing of such a death sentence to him, exclaimed loudly: "Thank You, Lord, for honoring me to testify to perfect love for You and for finding me worthy to be chained in iron chains like Your Apostle Paul." And with great joy he received the shackles on himself like a beautiful pearl necklace: precious jewelry, with which he wanted to be resurrected in the future life.[6]

The emperor went to war with the army, and the divine martyr, chained in heavy chains, would be handed over to ten cruel and ruthless soldiers, and sent to Rome. Leaving Antioch, he fervently prayed for the Church and entrusted his flock to God. All the faithful wept for him and wept bitterly, and some, bound to him with so much love, set out with him. Arriving in Seleucia, not far from Antioch, the soldiers with Saint Ignatius boarded a ship that was supposed to sail along the coast of Asia Minor, and after a long and dangerous voyage, they arrived in Smyrna. There Saint Ignatius met and greeted Saint Polycarp, the divine apostle, Bishop of Smyrna, his fellow disciple, and consoled himself with him in a God-inspired conversation, rejoicing in his bonds and boasting of his chains. For what could be a better ornament for him if not those chains in which he was chained for his Lord? He was also seen with other bishops, presbyters and deacons, who came to him from the churches and cities of Asia, wanting to see him and hear his divine words from his mouth. By confirming Christians in the faith with his word and example, he advised them to beware of various heresies and to strictly adhere to the apostolic tradition. At the same time, Saint Ignatius begged Saint Polycarp and the Church in general, to pray for him to have his life come to an end by the teeth of the beasts as soon as possible, and to appear before the face of the much-desired Lord. But seeing them opposed to his death and separation from them, he feared that the Christians in Rome would not be similarly opposed to his surrender to the beasts and would cause any hindrance to it, that they might not cause an uproar against those who were ordered to hand him over to beasts to eat, thus closing the open doors of martyrdom and preventing his longing for death. Therefore, he decided to send a request to them, that they pray for him that his path of suffering would not be long, but that the beasts would tear him apart as soon as possible and he would depart to his beloved Lord. And he wrote to them thus:

"Ignatius, who is also called Theophoros, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, I wish abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God.

Through prayer to God I have obtained the privilege of seeing your most worthy faces, and have even been granted more than I requested; for I hope as a prisoner in Christ Jesus to salute you, if indeed it be the will of God that I be thought worthy of attaining unto the end. For the beginning has been well ordered, if I may obtain grace to cling to my lot without hindrance unto the end. For I am afraid of your love, lest it should do me an injury. For it is easy for you to accomplish what you please; but it is difficult for me to attain to God, if you spare me.

For it is not my desire to act towards you as a man-pleaser, but as pleasing God, even as also you please Him. For neither shall I ever have such another opportunity of attaining to God; nor will you, if you shall now be silent, ever be entitled to the honor of a better work. For if you are silent concerning me, I shall become God's; but if you show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race. Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared; that, being gathered together in love, you may sing praise to the Father, through Christ Jesus, that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west. It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise again to Him.

You have never envied any one; you have taught others. Now I desire that those things may be confirmed by your conduct, which in your instructions you enjoin on others.[7] Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but truly will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one. For if I be truly found a Christian, I may also be called one, and be then deemed faithful, when I shall no longer appear to the world. Nothing visible is eternal. 'For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.' For our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is with the Father, is all the more revealed in His glory. Christianity is not a thing of silence only, but also of manifest greatness.

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep in death, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.

From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries to act as a disciple of Christ; 'yet am I not thereby justified.' May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me in this: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.

All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. "For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?" Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world. Allow me to obtain pure light: when I have gone there, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened.

The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be on my side, that is, on the side of God. Do not speak of Jesus Christ, and yet set your desires on the world. Let not envy find a dwelling-place among you; nor even should I, when present with you, exhort you to it, be persuaded to listen to me, but rather give credit to those things which I now write to you. For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water [8] that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.

I no longer wish to live after the manner of men, and my desire shall be fulfilled if you consent. Be willing, then, that you also may have your desires fulfilled. I entreat you in this brief letter; give credit to me. Jesus Christ will reveal these things to you, so that you shall know that I speak truly. He is the mouth altogether free from falsehood, by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me, that I may attain the object of my desire. I have not written to you according to the flesh, but according to the will of God. If I shall suffer, you have wished well to me; but if I am rejected, you have hated me.

Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love will also regard it. But as for me, I am ashamed to be counted one of them; for indeed I am not worthy, as being the very last of them, and one born out of due time.  But I have obtained mercy to be somebody, if I shall attain to God. My spirit salutes you, and the love of the Churches that have received me in the name of Jesus Christ, and not as a mere passer-by.[9] For even those Churches which were not near to me in the way, I mean according to the flesh, have gone before me, city by city, to meet me.

Now I write these things to you from Smyrna by the Ephesians, who are deservedly most happy. There is also with me, along with many others, Crocus, one dearly beloved by me. As to those who have gone before me from Syria to Rome for the glory of God, I believe that you are acquainted with them; to whom, then, make known that I am at hand. For they are all worthy, both of God and of you; and it is becoming that you should refresh them in all things. I have written these things unto you, on the day before the ninth of the Kalends of September [10] (that is, on the twenty-third day of August) [11]. Fare well to the end, in the patience of Jesus Christ. Amen."

Blessed Ignatius sent this epistle ahead of him by some Ephesian Christians who accompanied him and who traveled a short way to Rome. After some time, Saint Ignatius himself, led by soldiers, left Smyrna and arrived in Troas. From Troas, the Saint sailed to Neapolis in Macedonia, and crossed Philippopolis on foot to Macedonia, visiting churches along the way, advising the brethren, and ordering everyone to be cheerful and sober. And when he crossed Epirus, Saint Ignatius in Dyrrachium boarded a ship, sailed across the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas to Italy and disembarked at the port, not far from Rome. The soldiers hurried to Rome. However, when the Christians heard about the arrival of the Bishop of Antioch, they gathered and met him full of joy but also deep sorrow. Some hoped to persuade the people to give up the bloody theatrical scene: the death of a righteous man. But Saint Ignatius begged them not to do it out of love for him, and kneeling together with the brothers present, he prayed to the Lord Christ for the Churches, for an end to the persecution and for the multiplication of love among the believing brethren. Then Saint Ignatius would be taken to Rome, and handed over with the imperial order to the city eparch. And he, seeing the God-bearer and reading the emperor's order, immediately ordered the beasts to be prepared.

A festival came, and Saint Ignatius would be brought before the audience, and the whole city gathered for that event, because the news had spread everywhere that the Bishop of Antioch would be cast before the beasts. Set up in the amphitheater, the bright-faced Saint addressed the people, proud of his heroic soul and rejoicing that he accepted death for Christ, and said loudly: "Romans! You are watching this feat of mine! You know, I receive this punishment not for a crime, I am dying not because of some iniquity, but because of my One God, for whom I am obsessed with love and for whom I long insatiably. For I am His wheat, and I will be crushed by the teeth of beasts, to be pure bread for Him."

As soon as the Saint said that, lions were released on him. Immediately rushing towards him, they tore the Saint apart and ate him, leaving only his hard bones. And the Saint's wish came true: that the beasts be his grave. God thus allows His favor. For God could shut the mouths of the lions before him, as before Daniel in the pit and before Saint Thecla in the theater, for the glory of His Holy Name. But He allowed it out of love, to fulfill the desire and request of His servant rather than to glorify His almighty power. Such would be the end of Saint Ignatius the God-bearer, such would be his feat, such would be his love for God.

When the act was over, the faithful who were in Rome and to whom the Saint had written from Smyrna, and some of those who had traveled with him, collected the remaining bones of the holy martyr, and inconsolably weeping for him laid them honorably in a special place outside the city on the twentieth day of the month of December.

"Having ourselves been eye-witnesses of these things, and having spent the whole night in tears within the house, and having entreated the Lord, with bended knees and much prayer, that He would give us weak men full assurance respecting the things which were done, it came to pass, on our falling into a brief slumber, that some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labor, and standing by the Lord. When, therefore, we had with great joy witnessed these things, and had compared our several visions together, we sang praise to God, the giver of all good things, and expressed our sense of the happiness of the holy martyr; and now we have made known to you both the day and the time when these things happened, that, assembling ourselves together according to the time of his martyrdom, we may have fellowship with the champion and noble martyr of Christ, who trod under foot the devil, and perfected the course which, out of love to Christ, he had desired, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Learning about the death of Saint Ignatius, about his heroic courage, and how he went to his death without any fear and joy for God and of his Christ, Emperor Trajan was overwhelmed with grief over the martyr. Besides hearing about Christians that they are good and meek people, they live in abstinence, love purity, remove themselves from every evil deed, have a flawless life, and in no way oppose his empire, they just do not agree to have many gods but worship the One Christ, Trajan ordered that they be killed no more and left alone.

After that, the honorable bones of Saint Ignatius the God-bearer would be solemnly transferred to Antioch[12] for the protection of the city, for the healing of the sick, and for the joy of all the flocks of this shepherd, and to the glory of God, One in Trinity, glorified by all forever. Amen.

Some also say the following about Saint Ignatius the God-bearer: When they took him to be devoured by the beasts, he constantly had the name of Jesus Christ on his lips, and the pagans asked him why he kept repeating that name. The Saint answered that he had the name of Jesus Christ written in his heart, so he confessed with his mouth the One he always carries in his heart. And when after the Saint was eaten by the beasts, then his remaining bones would be preserved, by the will of God, and his whole heart was not devoured by the beasts. Finding it, the pagans remembered the words of Saint Ignatius, and cut his heart in two, wanting to make sure that what he said was true. And they found the name "Jesus Christ" written in golden letters on both inner sides of the severed heart. Thus Saint Ignatius was the God-bearer both in name and in reality, always carrying Christ God in his heart, with a godly mind.


1. Emperor Trajan reigned from 98 to 117.

2. At that time, Antioch, the magnificent capital of Syria, was the largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome, and had about two hundred thousand inhabitants. The apostle Peter ruled the church of Antioch from 47-57, his successor Saint Evodius to the year 68, Saint Ignatius the God-bearer from 68-107.

3. The commemoration of Saint Polycarp is celebrated on February 23.

4. That was in the year 106.

5. Zeus or Jupiter - the main pagan god of the Greeks and Romans.

6. Saint Ignatius speaks about this in his Epistle to the Ephesians.

7. Saint Ignatius speaks here of the glory of dying for Christ.

8. Living water - the Holy Spirit, who awakens and strengthens to martyrdom. Compare: Jn. 4:10; 7:3.

9. That is, with such love, it was as if Ignatius was their own bishop.

10. This is how it was calculated according to the Roman calendar.

11. In 107.

12. The transfer of the relics of Saint Ignatius is celebrated on January 29.

Source: Lives of the Saints. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.