October 17th, Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch
At that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying: Who thinkest thou is the greater in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus calling unto him a little child, set him in the midst of them, And said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4)
According to an ancient tradition, St. Ignatius of Antioch was the child whom Christ took and presented to the apostles as the example of the one who is greater in the kingdom of heaven. From that day the child, who was most beloved by the Savior and favored with the divine embrace, was also marked as the one upon whom lions would feast in the Roman Colosseum.
Turning to a sermon of the gentle Doctor, St. Francis de Sales, we will consider the example of this great bishop and martyr.
The favored child, the God Bearer
“The fact is this: Our Lord, seeing a little child one day, picked him up, kissed him and showed him to the Apostles, saying: I tell you solemnly, unless you become like this little child you will never enter Paradise. [Mt 18:2-3; Mk 9:35] Many say that this child was St. Martial, who later became Bishop of Limoges; but the more common opinion is that it was St. Ignatius the martyr, whose feast we celebrated yesterday [February 1st] and whose Office is transferred to tomorrow.
“Oh, how blessed was this glorious St. Ignatius, since he was taken up into Our Lord’s arms and given as an example to the Apostles! How precious and sweet was that kiss! What sacred, secret words Our Lord said to this happy child as He kissed him! How blessed he was to allow himself to be carried and handled by the Savior, who rewarded him by engraving His own sacred Name in the depths of his heart!” (Sermon of St. Francis de Sales, on the Purification of Mary)
It is important to note that, in the traditional calendar of the Roman Rite (which was in universal usage during St. Francis’ life), St. Ignatius’ feast is observed on February 1st rather than October 17th. This explains the Bishop’s reference to the feast celebrated “yesterday” and the Office observed “tomorrow”, since he gave this sermon on February 2nd, the feast of the Purification of Mary (now called the Presentation of Jesus).
Having been carried by our Savior as a child, St. Ignatius as a grown man called himself Theophorus which means “God Bearer”. Hence, he indicates to us that there must be a connection between being carried by God and carrying God, between being blessed and favored by the Lord and accepting his providence and will in our lives.
Taking the name “God Bearer” calls to mind another saint who held the Lord in his own arms. Namely, St. Simeon the priest to whom our Savior was presented in the Temple.
St. Ignatius and St. Simeon
The close proximity of the St. Ignatius’ feast to the feast of the Purification of Mary (i.e. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple) leads St. Francis to make an interesting parallel: We have St. Simeon the priest who carried Jesus, and we have St. Ignatius of Antioch whom Jesus carried. Whose example do we wish to imitate?
The gentle Doctor, St. Francis, tells us that both must be followed and that the example of each is necessary for all whom Christ calls to perfection and who strive to take the narrow path unto salvation. We must be carried by the Savior whom we carry in our hearts.
To be carried by our Savior, as was the child Ignatius, is to receive the divine favor and an abundance of spiritual graces. To carry the Lord, as did St. Simeon, is to accept and bear his providence in our lives, together with any pains or sufferings which may accompany his plan for us.
The one whom Jesus carries as a child is blessed indeed and begins to enjoy the favors of heaven while yet on earth. However, the one who carries Jesus through bearing trials and sufferings for the love of God gains more in merit. While the former way is perhaps more perfect, the latter is most necessary. The former way corresponds to heaven, while the latter befits earth.
And yet, we must not make too strong a distinction between the two, since he alone will have the strength to bear every burden who himself is carried by the grace of our Savor. And to him, whom our Savior favors with graces (carrying him in his divine love), many sufferings will also be added – for, as a rule, those whom God favors with spiritual delights must also suffer much in the body and in the soul.
If we would be carried like St. Ignatius, we must accept and bear the will of God after the example of St. Simeon. If we would have the strength to bear every suffering, we must seek refuge in and be upheld by the strong embrace of our Savior.
Whom Christ bears, Who bears sufferings
“Leave yourselves, then, entirely in the arms of His Divine Providence, submitting yourselves in what concerns His Law and disposing yourselves to endure all the pains and suffering that may come to you in this life. When you have done this you will find that the hardest and most painful things will be rendered sweet and agreeable to you, and you will share the happiness experienced by St. Simeon and St. Ignatius.” (Sermon of St. Francis de Sales, on the Purification of Mary)
And, truly, St. Ignatius of Antioch unites both examples in his own life – for he was marked from his childhood as one favored not only with divine graces but also with martyrdom. Having been selected by our Savior as a boy, he was offered to the beasts in the Colosseum as a man. Rather than deny the God who had held him in his youth, St. Ignatius offered the supreme witness of his life to the same God whom he had long held in his heart.
In a letter to St. Jane de Chantal (26 January 1615, of the occasion of preparations being made for the first Visitation foundation to be made in Lyons) St. Francis de Sales wrote:
“I have been thinking about the story of the great St. Ignatius who carried Jesus Christ in his heart and cheerfully went to serve as food for the lions and suffer the martyrdom of their fangs: and here you are, here we are, going to Lyons, please our Savior, to render Our lord various services and prepare souls for him so that he can be their bridegroom. What can stop us from going joyfully in the name of our Savior, since this saint went so blithely to be martyred for our Savior?”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, Pray for us!