Living Icons: St. Ignatius the God-Bearer

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.”

St. Ignatius the God-bearer

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. Continue reading