Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Redemptive Suffering" in Christianity's Earliest Writings

Being sick this past week has given me additional time to re-read Ignatius of Antioch's seven epistles (c.110 A.D.).  Dr. Vost and I are inviting listeners to read them (free of charge) and then call in to EWTN's "St. Joseph Radio Presents ..." on April 6th to share their thoughts (1-855-447-6000).  I have been prepping for the April discussion with the help of Dr. Kenneth Howell's new translation and commentary, Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna.  One of the elements I have found most intriguing in his analysis of Ignatius's epistles is the presence of what later theology terms redemptive suffering.  

By "redemptive suffering," I mean the belief that the sufferings God allows into our lives, when accepted and lived with trust in His love for us, participate in the sufferings of the Crucified; and the grace we receive to participate in Jesus' sufferings are of benefit not just to us, but the entire Body of Christ.  In the past I shared my conviction that this belief is found in the writings of St. Paul and witnessed to both in our Eucharistic belief and our Blessed Mother's earthly life.  

Dr. Howell helps us follow this thread from Paul through the Church's earliest days.  Chapter two of his book is devoted to Ignatius's theology of martyrdom.  I have read two other translations of Ignatius's epistles, but no one before Dr. Howell pointed out the literal translation of Ignatius's Greek term, antipsuchon - "substitute soul."  To put it in context, here is Ignatius's usage in his epistles to the Smyrneans and Polycarp, respectively:  "My spirit and my bonds are your substitute soul"; "I and my bonds that you love are your substitute soul in every way."  Listen to Dr. Howell's commentary here, "[Ignaitus's] sharing in the passion of Christ serves to advance the spiritual welfare of those to whom he writes since he is their 'substitute soul' (antipuschon).  Since in his mind Ignatius's martyrdom began while still in chains, he is conscious that it is for more than his own salvation" (p.13-14).

I should also note how Ignatius witnessed to a "give-and-take" within the Communion of Saints, with all grace flowing from Christ Jesus, "Now pray for me as I need the love [emanating] from you in the mercy of God to make me worthy of the lot which I am set to obtain.  Pray that I may not be found unapproved."  And this truth extends beyond earth into the life of heaven, "My spirit makes you pure not only now but also when I attain to God" (Epistle to Polycarp).  

St. Ignatius of Antioch, participant in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the Church (Col.1:24), pray for us!

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