The practice of venerating saints makes many modern Christians uncomfortable. “Why can’t we just focus on Christ?” is the typical objection, “Aren’t you making idols out of ordinary people?” And icons depicting the Saints towering over a landscape with a glowing halo only make these concerns seem more poignant. But what this objection misses is that for traditional Christians, the veneration of Saints is a simple consequence of the Incarnation. We believe that God became man so that men might become like God, and the Saints are proof that this has actually happened. They show through their lives that the Incarnation was not mere sophistry or legend, but an actual, concrete union between God and man, which made ordinary men and women glow with the light and love of Divinity. The light streaming out of their haloes in the Icons is none other than the light which streamed forth from Christ’s body at the Transfiguration. Christ wasn’t asserting a contradiction when He said both, “I am the light of the world” and “You are the light of the world.”
This notion goes right back to the dawn of Christianity, and we see it reflected perfectly in the life and writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was commemorated in the Coptic Church last Sunday. Ignatius’ story takes place at the very dawn of Christian history, in living memory of the Apostles; he is said to have been a disciple of John the Beloved himself. Despite this incredibly early date, Ignatius’ writings powerfully express the belief that lies at the heart of traditional Christian sainthood: that because of the Incarnation, mortal men bear God’s love and power. You see, St. Ignatius is also called “The God-bearer” (θεοφόρος, theophoros), a word taken from his own writings. He used it to describe all Christians:
“Ye, therefore, as well as all your fellow-travellers, are God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, adorned in all respects with the commandments of Jesus Christ …” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, Ch. 9)
Because of the Incarnation, where God dwelt in human flesh, humans can be God-bearers: living, fleshly analogues of the ancient Jewish Temple, of which God said “this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet …” (Ez. 43:7) And thus, there’s no tension between the veneration of Saints and the worship of Christ; the Saints are “God’s field” and “God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9); He built them like He built the Temple, and adorned them with His own beauty, that the world might admire God through them.
But Ignatius’ most powerful insights into Christian sainthood come not from his writings, but from his life, and particularly, from his death. He was martyred around 107 AD, under the Emperor Trajan, one of the first Roman emperors to take notice of the rapidly growing Christian movement. He served as the Bishop of Antioch (in Syria), but was shipped off to Rome for public execution. According to tradition, he was killed by lions in the Colosseum for the amusement of the Roman people, and that is the image which has dominated his iconography. Icons of St. Ignatius are among the most striking images in the Church’s entire visual library – he is typically depicted standing or kneeling in prayer, ignoring the two lions (often coloured a hellish red) which tear at his flesh on either side:
Above this terrifying scene, in small, understated letters lie the words: “St. Ignatius the God-bearer.” . An icon is a still and highly symbolic image; but the scene this icon depicts is uncommonly violent and restless. The fact that the icon chooses this moment as the one which most perfectly captures Ignatius’ relationship to God – the moment which marks him out as a true ‘God-bearer’ – is quite surprising at first.
But it would not have surprised Ignatius. Ignatius wanted to die this way. Remarkably, he told the Roman Christians that if they saved him from martyrdom (by bribery or legal appeal), they would be preventing him from truly living:
“Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God.” (Rom. Ch. 6)
Like many Christians, my first reaction to these words was one of horror. Is Ignatius saying that it is a good thing when people are butchered by other people’s cruelty? Does this mean that grisly suicide is the most Christian way to die? The answer, of course, is no. Ignatius is not saying that death or violence are good things in themselves, just as no Christian would say that crucifixion is a good thing, in itself. The key phrase here is: “Permit to be an imitator of the passion of my God.” Ignatius wants to live out Christ’s crucifixion, and Christ’s crucifixion was not a masochistic exercise in self-punishment. Christ offered Himself to an unjust death “for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). Like a soldier who dives over a grenade to save his friends, Christ’s death (and also the death of every martyr) is an act of rebellion against the very forces which threaten to destroy His beloved. That’s why Ignatius speaks of his death as a form of combat against the Devil (the originator of murder and violence):
“Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” (Ignatius to the Romans. 5,6)
Ignatius is not endorsing violent death: he is making the most powerful statement against it that anyone can make. He is daring to endure it without retaliation and without fear. We might even dare to say that in imitation (and through the power) of Christ, Ignatius is “conquering death by death.” He is a true God-bearer when like his God, he gives up his body and blood for the life of the world:
“I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread [of Christ].” (Ignatius to the Romans Ch. 4)
St. John Chrysostom also wrote a beautiful homily on Ignatius’ life and death, which you can read here.