Tuesday, October 18, 2011

29th Monday in Ordinary Time, Cycle I (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop & Martyr)

Sorry this is running late, but that’s been the story of my day.

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Luke 12:13-21 is one of my favorite passages, for it contains the parable of the Rich Fool.

Jesus continually tells us not to place our trust in riches: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:19-21). Everything mortal passes away; everything material is subject to entropy, to the slow process by which the universe breaks down everything from the complex to the simple.

So it is here: Jesus first refuses to act in a dispute between two brothers squabbling over their inheritance from their father; his rhetorical question “Who made me a judge or arbitrator over your claim?” is as much a reference to the purpose of his earthly mission as it is a rabbinical legal point. He then warns the crowd, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

The parables of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) and the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) teach us that the repentant will be rewarded as the just, even if they come in at the last hour. It would be easy, then, to live our lives the way we wanted to and then come to God in the eleventh hour … if only we knew when it were to be. But even the longest life is too short to be fribbled away, and so many people are given very little time to spend their love wisely and well.

Ignatius, third bishop of Antioch (succeeding Ss. Peter and Evodius in that see) knew he was going to die. According to The Martyrdom of Ignatius, St. Ignatius considered “that the confession which is made by martyrdom, would bring him into a yet more intimate relation to the Lord”, perfecting his love as a disciple for Christ. So he sought out the emperor Trajan to deliberately provoke that anti-Christian soul into condemning him to death.

Ignatius knew not only when he would die but how he would die: at the tooth and claw of wild beasts. He not only knew this, but embraced it, writing the Romans who wanted to secure clemency for him:

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 anyone. 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] (Letter to the Romans, 4).

For Ignatius, death was the moment Christ’s promises are fulfilled, the moment the treasure stored in heaven paid their dividend:

It is better for me to die in 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” [Mt 16:26]?[*] 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 (ibid., 6).

Saint Paul tells the Romans:

No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness” [Gen 15:6]. But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Rom 4:20-25).

In this much, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Thomas More were two sides of the same coin. Where the one eagerly sought out his temporal ruler to defy him and receive his reward, the other sought every legal avenue possible to avoid giving offense to his friend, the playboy king Churchill yclept a “monstrous child”, shedding all offices, material wealth and friendships he had earned in a successful public life in that effort. But when the last door was shut upon him (“Richard, it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world and lose his soul … but for Wales?”)[†] and his life hung upon his own decision, St. Thomas put his own neck in his gibbet as carelessly and eagerly as St. Ignatius threw himself at the lions.

And it has been credited to both as righteousness.

[*] The Greek text has ψυχή (psychē), which can be translated as either “life” or “soul”.
[†] This line is from A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt. Without immediate access to the trial records, I don’t know if St. Thomas actually said this … but if he didn’t, he should have.