Eucharistic Reflections from Ignatius of Antioch, part 3 of 4

Eucharist is the act of thanksgiving which brings the church together in unity and allows her to feast upon the reality of Christ in the life of the church and of its members. Against those who confess a doctrine contrary to Scripture and the incarnation, it is a sign that they are outside that unity and fellowship. For those who are under discipline, it is a reminder that the unity of the church is a matter of utmost seriousness and to prayerfully seek repentance and reinstatement within the body. For when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. The act of Eucharist in the life of the church is an act which demonstrates this reality.

As we continue looking at Ignatius’s instructions and exhortations regarding the Eucharist, we will see here that it is an act of devotion. This is not an unfamiliar theme to numerous Christians throughout the world. For all believers are called to examine themselves and discern the body (that is the gathered saints) in order that they will not partake of the meal in an unworthy manner, possibly bringing judgment upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:17-34). The Eucharist is an all inclusive act of devotion which includes personal reflection on the sufferings of Christ, the corporate act of worship including prayer and confession and the realization that this supper represents a greater one to come. It is the central spiritual act of the gathered church, and for Ignatius this devotional act is likewise a core theme for the Eucharist. May it always continue to be until the coming of our Lord!

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Eucharist as Devotion

There exists little doubt regarding Ignatius and devotional language pertaining to the Eucharist. James T. O’Connor rightly identifies this saying, “[The] mystery of the Lord’s Body and Blood was a most significant aspect in his thought and in his own spiritual life.”[1] For Ignatius, Eucharist is more than the reminder of Christ; it is Christ himself. Perhaps for some this language could be confusing at best, and downright offensive to others. What was it that Ignatius saw in the act of Eucharist? Did he see this as the elements of bread and wine becoming the flesh and blood of Christ, or was it a mystery free from the bounds of explanation? Above all, it remains clear that Ignatius viewed this central act of the church as true devotion to the Savior who embodies that same church.

In his appeals to unity, Ignatius sees the act of coming together to give thanks as the supreme act of devotion. Ignatius makes an appeal to come together “more frequently to give thanks and glory to God.”[2] Though the explicit mention of the act of Eucharist is questionable, the Greek text in the least stresses the unique act of “giving thanks” or, eujcaristi÷an. Schoedel in fact takes this to mean the sacred meal while acknowledging that the ideas of “thanksgiving” and “glory” are employed within the context of the Eucharist.[3] He rightly suggests that this mention would most plausibly lead the reader to reflect on the act of Eucharist in the worship. Devotion, in the context of Eph. 13.1, involved a frequency of gathering which is a characteristic mark of any group devoted to a cause. Devotion involves enthusiasm and to this end Ignatius here encourages the Ephesian church. But what is the object of such devotion?

For Ignatius the recipient of devotion in Eucharist is always Christ Jesus. We first witness this in Eph. 20.2, as Ignatius describes the Eucharist being the “medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ.” Here the devotion is to Christ as life, and perhaps an allusion to his earlier description of Christ as the “one physician” in Eph. 7.2. The devotion of course is never to be found in the elements themselves, rather, it is to be seen as the true prescription against death as one consecrates their life to Christ. Thus, the common assembly was to partake in the Eucharist and its purpose was to impart life to Christians “smitten by death.”[4] This devotion always includes Christ as its final object and the unity of believers as its ultimate means. Never in Ignatius does one find Eucharist apart from unity, and such unity leads to the devotion witnessed in Eph. 20.2.

Devotion in Eucharist additionally included two realties: the incarnation and submission to authority. Returning to our trophy passage in Eph 20.2, Ignatius clearly identifies Christ as both “Son of Man and Son of God” mentioning that he was “physically a descendant of David.” No Eucharist is true which does not acknowledge such a basic Christian truth, an idea I will return to regarding Ignatius’s language of Eucharist as polemic. We see devotional language employed regarding the incarnation elsewhere in Rom 7.3. Here our bishop, in much more personal language, conveys his desire to forsake real bread for “the bread of God which is the flesh of Christ” and to forgo drink for “his blood which is incorruptible love.” Here again we see clear distinctions regarding the fleshly reality of Christ in the incarnation, most likely referring more to his death at this location. Ignatius’s epistle to the Romans reveals above all others his personal devotional language to Christ in light of his impending martyrdom. Though likely mirroring Christ’s passion with his own, the language of “eat and drink” cannot escape allusions to Eucharist. Though Schoedel regards this as an expression of desire to “authenticate his Christianity in martyrdom,” Eucharistic language is unmistakable and creates for the reader a devotion to Christ both in his passion, and that meal which is taken in identification with that passion.[5]

The other reality in Eucharist as devotion is submission to authority. Ignatius unquestionably relates the role of bishop, presbyters and deacons to a higher authority. To submit to a leader in the church is to submit to God himself. Such submission is thus necessary in partaking of the Eucharist and in doing so, a congregate submits to Christ; the greatest act of devotion. This aspect is best illustrated in Smyr 8.1-2. Here Ignatius implores the body to follow the bishop “as Jesus Christ followed the Father,” that is, in complete submission to the Father. He further instructs obedience towards the remainder of leaders within the church and only then communicates that submission in regards to partaking in the Eucharist. Obedience to leadership is primary and this is illustrated concretely in the Eucharist. In this and only this way is the Eucharist considered valid in the eyes of Ignatius. The devotion due to Christ manifests itself as submission to the bishop within the Eucharist.

This thought presents itself elsewhere within Ignatius regarding devotion, namely, in what has been called the mysterious real presence of Christ. One author makes mention that within Ignatius, practically every view of the Eucharist can be found.[6] However true this may be, for Ignatius, the Eucharist represented the real presence of Christ and that the analogy between the elements and Christ are left unexplained as a mystery.[7] Such a view partners well with the language of devotion used within the Ignatian text. We see this in various places with assorted language. Apostles grasped the fleshly body of Christ and enjoyed a meal with him, as explained in Smyr 3.1-3. Though they enjoyed a physical reality, there was a spiritual component to such an occurrence for though Christ was “like one who is composed of flesh” he was “spiritually united with the Father.”[8] Elsewhere we see language of matter containing more than just a surface understanding. The breaking of bread is the medicine of immortality.[9] The blood of Christ is “incorruptible love.”[10] In response to Docetists, Ignatius regards the Eucharist as “the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ.”[11] The Docetist issue will be addressed momentarily, however, it is clear that Eucharist involves deeply devotional language intimately connected to the presence of Christ. For Ignatius Eucharistic expressions cannot be divorced from devotion to Christ Jesus himself.

Undeniably, Ignatius finds devotion to Christ within the sacrament of the Eucharist. This view is best expressed as a mysterious real presence for the following two reasons. Against a transubstantiated view, Ignatius nowhere chooses to explain a process of change in the elements, rather his phrasing is analogical and definitive. In opposition to a memorial view, the expression Ignatius gives us simply does not allow for this. For our bishop, the Eucharist is the central act wrought from the unity within the church and indicative of its unity to Christ himself. More than remembering, Eucharist signifies the connection of the church to her Lord and the grace he imparts to it. Roman Catholic sacramental theology can claim Ignatius as an early champion yet they would be hard pressed to prove the Aristotelian understanding of transubstantiation as later made dogma by the church. For those wishing to retroactively seek a memorial view, they too would struggle to demonstrate their case using Ignatius as a test subject. In Ignatius we have an early Christian devoted to his Lord and views the act of Eucharist as the fundamental expression of Christ’s presence in the unified church. Our bishop yet views Eucharist in one additional fashion, that is, as a polemic against Docetism.


[1] James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 12.

[2] Eph. 13.1

[3]  William R. Shoedel, Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 74.

[4] Eugene LaVerdiere, The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Early Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 159.

[5] Shoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 186.

[6] O’Connor, The Hidden Manna, 17.

[7] I refer the reader to a recent student thesis regarding the Eucharist of Ignatius in which the text has been analyzed and synthesized to show his view of Eucharist as the mysterious real presence of Christ. Please see Matthew Shackelford, The Eucharist of Ignatius of Antioch, Dallas Theological Seminary, December 2009.

[8] Smyr 3.3.

[9] Eph 20.2.

[10] Rom 7.3.

[11] Smyr 6.2

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