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The Eucharistic the Apostolic Fathers Part Two: St. Ignatius of Antioch

Two weeks ago we discussed the beginnings of a Eucharistic theology in the writing of St. Clement of Rome. This week we delve into a deeper and more plentiful corpus from which to draw a beautiful theology of the Eucharist.  
A few years after Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters, six to Christian communities and one to St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, on his way to martyrdom in Rome.  There are five major Eucharistic themes in these letters: sacrifice, the offices of the Eucharist, sacrament of unity, Eucharistic Christology, and Eucharistic Christianity.  The notion of sacrifice was the major theme running through all of the Apostolic Fathers.  The Eucharistic sacrifice takes on a special tone in Ignatius. “Be careful therefore to use one Eucharist for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup of union with his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants, in order that whatever you do you may do it according unto God.”[i]  The altar is the place of sacrifice.  It is where the bishop with the presbytery offers the body and blood.  The Greek word used, ousiasterien, can also be translated as sanctuary, the place of sacrifice.  “It seems that the conception of the Eucharist as the sacrifice of the Church suggested this designation.”[ii] 

In this quote from his letter to the Philadelphians Ignatius also points towards certain offices that officiate at the Eucharistic sacrifice.  There he mentions bishops, presbyters, and deacons.  The bishop though is the presider at the Eucharist. “Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.”[iii]  The bishop is seen as the representative of Christ, who unifies the church.  The presbyters assist the bishop in his role.  They are seen as a different office something that was not distinguished in Clement of Rome.  The deacon serves at the sacrifice.  John Zizioulias says that the orders “have survived in history as constitutive for the Eucharist.”[iv]  Ignatius places them within the Eucharistic sacrifice by the will of God.  It is at the Eucharistic sacrifice that the office gain their sustenance and are united more closely to Him whom that represent, in persona Christi.
Furthermore, through the bishop presiding as representative of Christ the Church becomes one body. “Hasten all to come together as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from the one Father, and is with one, and departed to one.”[v]  The Eucharist united the local church under its celebrant, the bishop.  They come together at one temple.  The Eucharist brings themto not only the local church but the entire Church extended through time and space at the one altar of sacrifice. “Zizioulas interprets Ignatius’ words to the Smyrnaeans as teaching that, in which Eucharistic event, the historical, earthly gathering around the bishop is ‘exactly the same as … the whole Church united in Christ.’”[vi]  It not only unites the whole Church but it unites the Church with the Father. “The Eucharistic assembly generates unity unity with the bishop, unity with the entire Church, and unity with Christ who is inseparably one with the Father.”[vii]  Ignatius’ shining reason for the unifying nature of the Eucharist has to do with his treatment of the Docetists.  They, not recognizing the humanity of Christ, saw the Eucharist as an abomination and did not partake of it. “Let no man be deceived: unless a man be within the sanctuary he lacks the bread of God, for if the prayer of one or two has such might, how much more has that of the bishop and of the whole church?  So then he who does not join in the common assembly, is already haughty, and has separated himself.”[viii]  By not partaking of the bread of God, a Johannine name for the Eucharist, which unites the Church as one, the Docetists separate themselves from the Church and from Christ.  This is the strongest and most vivid description of the unifying nature of the Eucharist in early Christian literature.  It indeed gives full life to the term, communion.

The Docetists had a faulty Christology that led to a faulty Eucharistic theology.  This shows the intimate relationship between the two.  “In Ignatius’ thinking, belief in the reality of Christ’s life-giving flesh has immediate consequences for Eucharistic theology.”[ix]  The Docetists failed to see that the Eucharist was the flesh of Christ. “I desire the ‘bread of God,’ which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was ‘of the seed of David,’ and for drink I desire his blood, which is incorruptible love.”[x]  The Son of God became flesh, sarx.  He suffered and died only to be risen on the third day.  The Eucharist, then, is the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ.  This is the closest any of the Apostolic Fathers comes to transubstantiation language.  To confirm this, Ignatius says of the Docetists, “They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness.”[xi]  The flesh of Christ, natural and Eucharistic, are both the object of the same faith of Christians.  “At every point there is the same flesh, the one sarx, of Christ.  The reality of Christ’s human flesh in his incarnation and the reality of his Eucharistic flesh are the objects of the one and the same faith.”[xii]  They are, in a sense, inseparable, one from the other, for those who never met Christ in the flesh.  Being post-Apostolic, Ignatius never met Christ in the flesh.  His experience of the flesh of Christ was in the body and blood of the Eucharistic sacrifice. 

These notions of sacrifice, presiding at the sacrifice, sacrament of communion, and flesh of Christ were taken on by Ignatius himself.  He saw his impending martyrdom as a sacrifice to the Father in union with the sacrifice of Christ.  He was offering himself, being both priest and victim, though in an analogous way, with Christ.

Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God.  I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ.  Rather entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb … then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ … Beseech Christ on my behalf, that I may be found a sacrifice through these instruments.[xiii] 
Ignatius had imbibed a Eucharistic Christianity.  He even compared himself to the Eucharistic species.  He wished to sacrifice himself to the Father in the way that he has experienced Christ sacrifice himself. 

The entire thinking of Ignatius in this mater is a dynamic prolongation of the Eucharist.  Like the Eucharist, and on the basis of it, martyrdom derives its value from the passion of Christ and leads to resurrection.  Through identification with Christ and through the complete gift of self that martyrdom entails, Ignatius will fulfill in himself the radical meaning of the Eucharistic sacrifice; as far as possible, he will make real in himself the Eucharistic mystery that is celebrated in the sacrifice of the altar.[xiv]

Ignatius by his very life and death lived, for the Christian faithful, the Eucharistic mystery.  He, in this time of Docetist heresy, lived a life in the flesh and for the flesh and with the flesh of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist.  One can only imagine the great reverence he had in presiding over a Eucharistic celebration, especially in the time awaiting his execution by beast.  He embodied the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.  By his martyrdom, he brought together the Christian community, in praise and thanksgiving to Lord, that such an imitator of Himself witnessed to them by his life and death.  By dying for the sake of the Lord, he died professing the fleshy existence of Jesus wishing to enter into glory with Him.


[i] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Philadelphians,” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 243.
[ii] Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Volume 1 The Beginnings of Patristic Literature (Westminster Maryland: Newman Press, 1962), 66.
[iii] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 261.
[iv] John Zizioulias, “The Ecclesiological Presupposition of the Holy Eucharist,” Nicolas 10 (1982), 343-344,  quoted in Paul McPartlan, The Eucharist Makes the Church: Henri de Lubac and John Zizioulas in Dialogue (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 195.
[v] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Magnesians,” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 203.
[vi] McPartlan, 169.

[vii] Raymond Johanny, “Ignatius of Antioch,” in The Eucharist of the Early Christians, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (NY: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1978), 60. 
[viii] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Ephesians,” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 179.
[ix] Johanny, 57.
[x] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Romans,” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 235.
[xii] Johanny, 53.
[xiii] “Letter to the Romans,” 231.

[xiv] Johanny, 65.

About Fr. Kyle

I am a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. I was born and raised right outside New Orleans. I attended Catholic school my entire educational career. By the time I graduated high school, I had two paths to choose: rockstar or priesthood. I pursued both for awhile but eventually came to the understanding God's will was priesthood and my will was rockstardom. After making that decision, to allow God's will to be mine, I needed a new way to channel my creativity. I began writing as I finished up my formation for priesthood. I still play music, but priestly ministry comes first. My bride: St. Rita of Cascia Parish in Harahan, LA.

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