Eucharistic Reflections from Ignatius of Antioch, part 2 of 4

Ignatius has been the subject of much abuse. He has been mined for treasures regarding the practice and theology of the early church, with various conclusions throughout the ages. Though objective history is impossible to achieve in my opinion, it is still a worthwhile endeavor for us to reflect on Ignatius’s writings and discover the points of development within early church theology and analyze how our own practice as Christians may benefit. In regards to the Eucharist, evangelical Christians have much to gain from this endeavor and can still find jewels within the mines of early church writings. Our challenge, however, is to not focus solely upon these jewels and make them the treasure we die for but rather add these jewels to the golden crown of Christ, his church and the faithful teaching of the apostles.

In this second part of my reflection upon Ignatius in regards to the Eucharist, I will show how the Eucharist is seen as an act of unity within the church. A church without Eucharist is without unity. The dispenser of the Eucharist is the bishop (or one approved by him) and this, being the guarantee of proper Christology within the church, unifies the church as they gather together. For the next segment, I will consider the devotional aspects of Eucharist as yet another facet within the writings of Ignatius. For now, I wish to show here in this entry that not only was unity for Ignatius and the early church an important facet of their worship, but it should be just as vitally important for us today. As we continue to mine Ignatius, may we consider the jewels we find and may we put our treasures in the right places.

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Eucharist as Unity

A cursory reading of Ignatius’s epistles will reveal a heavy emphasis on the unity of the church. In Eph. 4.2, as if describing a symphony of harmonious instruments, he explains such a picture as “perfect unity” with the purpose to “always have a share in God.” He continues to build upon this notion in 5.2 stating, “If anyone is not within the sanctuary, he lacks the bread of God.” Those who do not meet together, therefore, are “arrogant” thinking perhaps that the unity of the body is not important compared to the desires of self. In 5.2, the context is not specifically Eucharistic yet the idea of nourishment, the prayer of the bishop and the unity of the congregation are present. It is difficult to see this as anything other than the Eucharistic act taking place. Those in the body, led by the prayers of the bishop, do in fact have the bread of God.

Later in Ephesians, Ignatius makes an appeal for the body to “make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks.” Here we do see explicit use of eucharistian. In this frequent unity “the powers of Satan are overthrown” and conceivably Ignatius would have considered the Docetic heresy such a power of Satan. The point to be made regarding such a statement is that unity should be desired above all and such unification of the body is capable of great power. The language of Eucharist as unity becomes explicit in Eph. 20.2. Here the church is called upon to yield to the bishop and council of presbyters with an “undisturbed mind” while “breaking one bread” which he tells us is the “medicine of immortality.” Unity is the means in which the bread is partaken and seen as the “antidote….in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ.” Schismatics can not enjoy this one bread as they have disassociated themselves from such submission to leadership and unity.

In similar fashion to Paul in Eph. 4.4-6, Ignatius uses the language of “one” to further advance his call for unity under Eucharist. To the Magnesians, he implores the church to do everything in “godly harmony” and united under the leadership of God.[1] It is through this harmony that the people have the same hope, mind, prayer and petition which allows the church to look to one altar and one Jesus Christ, with the idea of the altar undoubtedly symbolizing the idea of the Eucharist meal. The church is one, united under one savior who is celebrated at one altar, that is, the Eucharist. Ignatius continues the image of oneness is Phil. 4, making clear mention that one Eucharist, the celebration of the flesh and blood of Christ, “leads to unity.” In this context, he juxtaposes this unifying act to “evil plants” who “hold to alien views.” In this case, practicing the one Eucharist (mia eucharistia) is the means to achieving unity under the leadership of the bishop and the presbyters.  Christ’s blood clearly unites, echoing Paul in Eph. 2.13-15, and for Ignatius unity indicates being in accordance with God.

Clearly Ignatius appeals to unity, not just within the various exhortations, but also specifically when referring to the Eucharistic meal. Using the language of “one,” “harmony,” and “unity” Ignatius refuses to allow his readers to assume anything less being represented within the act of Eucharist. Only under the leadership of the bishop and presbyters can the Eucharist be seen as legitimate; anything else is disharmonious and therefore, not the true Eucharist. Eucharist begins as an act of oneness and from there takes on a character of devotion, a facet to which I will direct my attention in the following segment. Take care and come back soon!

– Coleman


[1] Mag, 6.1.

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