Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Ignatius

Feb. 1; A.D. 107

"At the same time came the disciples unto JESUS, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And JESUS called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

This story has often been told to you. Perhaps you have also read it for yourselves in your Testament. Have you never thought that you would like to know what became of this little child, how he grew up, and what he did when a man?

We can never be quite sure about it, but from very early times it has been believed that a good and holy man named Ignatius Theophorus was that little child. Theophorus is a Greek word, and means one who bears GOD in his heart; and from all that is known of the life of the holy man, it does seem truly as if, from the time that JESUS laid His hands on him in Capernaum, and led him before the disciples as an example of innocence, the Spirit of CHRIST had always dwelt with him. He was brought up among the Apostles, and the blessed St. John, the Apostle of Divine love, took chief charge of him.

It is most likely that Ignatius went about with St. John until he was more than thirty years of age. Then he was sent to a church at Antioch to care for and govern it. It was at Antioch, you know, that those who believed in CHRIST were first called Christians. This was then a nick-name—a name given in scorn.

The people of the city laughed and jeered at all who followed the teaching of our Saviour, and as they were fond of giving people nick-names, they chose this—the name we are now most proud to bear—for the believers on JESUS CHRIST.

St. Ignatius ruled the Church he was set over with love and wisdom. He was always calm and gentle—full of love. He was very fond of music, and he taught the Christians to sing hymns in the services, and showed them how to chant the psalms in the way we now chant them in so many of our churches—antiphonally—that is, some of the singers standing on one side of the choir, some on the other, and each side singing a verse in turn.

Ignatius had been at Antioch for almost fifty years, and was quite an old man, when one day there was a great earthquake in the city. Its walls shook and toppled over, the houses fell, many people were killed, and all they had was destroyed.

There was fear on all sides. Then the pagans said the earthquake had been sent by their gods, who were angry that so many of the people here and everywhere had become Christians. And they said many false, cruel things about the Christians, and tried to make men believe that they were bad, wicked people who would do all the ill they could to those around them.

Now, Trajan, who was Emperor of Rome at this time, and who had power over lands in many parts of the world, had wished to be kind to the Christians, and had tried to let no harm come to them. But when his people came and told him of the great fear they were in through the earthquake, and how all men thought it had come upon them on account of this "new sect," as they called the followers of our Saviour, then he did not dare to go on being kind—he feared to make the people too much enraged against him.

Ignatius, who knew of all this, left Antioch, and went and stood before the great Emperor. He said he had come to prove how false was all that had been said about the Christians.

Trajan was staying in the East at this time, and was not very far from Antioch. He was seated upon a grand chair of state, and had soldiers and officers of his court around him when St. Ignatius was brought in. Calm and firm the old man, with his gentle eyes and his pure, noble face, stood before the Emperor.

But Trajan looked at him in anger, called him an evil demon, and demanded who he was that he dared to go against his laws, and to cause his fellow-men to perish.

The Bishop gave his name, "Ignatius Theophorus." Names in those days always had some special meaning. Trajan at once asked why he was called "Theophorus."

"Theophorus is one who bears GOD in his heart," replied Ignatius.

"What dost thou mean by GOD?" cried the Emperor.

Then Ignatius spoke of JESUS, the crucified Saviour, and of the kingdom of GOD in the heart of man.

When the Emperor heard St. Ignatius speak thus, he fell into a great rage; for although he had not wished to be cruel to the Christians, he hated to think of JESUS as GOD . So he ordered the aged saint to be bound and carried to Rome, there to be torn to death by wild beasts at a great show that was held each year.

St. Ignatius was not at all sad when he heard this. He thought it a joy to die for the sake of CHRIST; he even helped to fasten on his own chains. Then some soldiers took charge of him, and he was sent on his way to Rome. But they did not take him by the most direct road. It has been thought that because Trajan was not really a cruel man at heart, he did try after all to save the old saint from so dreadful a death. He sent him by a long, round-about way to Rome, thinking, perhaps, that when the people saw the white-haired old man led in chains through their land, and about to be put to a cruel death in their midst, they might feel some pity, and save him at the last.

Poor old man! But he showed no sign of grief. Through his whole life, since the very day no doubt that CHRIST had laid His hands on him, he had kept his sweet joyous temper, and he did not change in the least now. Through all the journey his face was bright and glad.

He was kept some time at a place called Smyrna, in Asia Minor. Here there were Christian churches, and though St. Ignatius was closely guarded, and chained to the wrist of a soldier whenever he went out, he was allowed to go about a little, and to see the friends who could come to him here. A great many came. They loved him so truly as to be ready to risk much to go and comfort him in his trial. So they came in spite of the pagans who were in charge of the saint, and who were full of hatred for them and him.

While he was kept thus at Smyrna, St. Ignatius wrote many letters or epistles to the Churches of Asia. These letters have always been kept with great care by the Church, and so they have come down to our own day, and we can read now the very words the good old saint wrote to the Christian people of those times. They are beautiful letters, very like the epistles which we have in the New Testament from St. Paul and St. John.

After a while an order came that Ignatius must go on to Rome. The guards then took him on board ship again. They sailed away, but still they did not travel very fast, and they stopped at two or three places as they came to them. Everywhere those who had known and loved St. Ignatius came out to greet him.

Many prayed him to let them go to the Emperor and beg that his life might be spared. But the old man would not hear of this. To die for the faith of CHRIST was to him the highest honour.

The great feast and fair was already going on in Rome when Ignatius reached the city. The streets were full of people, shouting, dancing, joking, and looking at shows and sports. But they were still waiting for what they thought would be the finest sport of all—the death of the Christian saint.

In a great round building called an amphitheatre were rows of seats, one row raised behind the other, making a circle round a large open space, where wild beasts were in those days set to fight with each other and with men.

Here Ignatius was to be led to meet his death. Friends had come with him for the last few miles of his journey; their love had been his comfort: his blessing, the last blessing of their beloved and holy Bishop, was now to comfort them. Then they took their leave, and he was led under one of the low, dark archways into the amphitheatre.

The open space in which these fearful combats took place was always strewn over with sand; it was called the "arena," which means "sand-covered."

Many were the horrible fights which took place here between men and beasts, but the sight was looked on in those days as fine sport. Men fought with the wild beasts till their strength was spent; then an appeal would be made to the people seated around. If they wished the lives of the men to be spared, they would raise their thumbs—this was the sign of mercy; if no sign were made, the fight was to go on till death. Such was the custom for those trained on purpose for these combats—the men called "gladiators." St. Ignatius was not a gladiator, but a victim, a Christian led to martyrdom, for him there was to be no thought of mercy or pity.

Fresh sand had been strewn in the arena, and as the old man was led there he heard the roaring of the lions in the dens below. A moment more and they were out upon him—two fierce lions. In a few seconds all that was left in this world of the noble old man was a handful of bones: "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of GOD; there shall no torment touch them." (Wisd. iii. 1.)