Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Surely Not I, Lord?

Today is the memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Syrian bishop who was martyred at Rome around 107 A.D. On his journey from his home to his death, he wrote seven letters to various churches. He wrote on a number of subjects, but he spoke with vivid eloquence of his ardent desire for martyrdom. Certainly, in this epoch of religious violence, many contemporary Christians from St. Ignatius' part of the world and elsewhere are suffering torture and death for their commitment to Christ and the gospel. But those of us who live less threatened lives might squirm a bit at the vehemence of Ignatius' plea to be allowed to die the death to which he has been condemned, without the intervention of well-meaning fellow Christians.

Nonetheless, Ignatius recalls for all of us the discomforting challenge of Jesus, who said there was no greater love than to lay down one's life for the others. He himself, of course, lived and died by that uncompromising love. And, lest we give pious thanks and go on about our business untempted to follow his example, he left us the commandment to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34).

Ignatius responded to that commandment according to his personal call at a time when Christians were actively persecuted. We are asked to respond to the same commandment according to our personal call in our present circumstances, whatever they might be. For some , the response may very well be fidelity to Christ in the face of torture and death. For many of us, it will rather be fidelity to Christ in the face of the humdrum demands of everyday life. It will likely be a fidelity that requires not drama but simple perseverance in ordinary things. If we are asked to lay down our lives minute by minute by spending the precious wealth of our time, our energy, our company, our attentiveness, our talents, or simply our willingness to be of service, the sacrifice is not as spectacular as Ignatius' death in the arena but it is just as authentic. Washing dishes so someone else doesn't have to has none of the aura of being torn to bits by wild beasts--but it may demand just as much love.

Ignatius gave a unique twist to the reason for it, though. He understood his martyrdom not simply as a death died willingly in imitation of Christ. He understood it as a death died willingly for the same reason that Christ died. He left us a graphic description of his purpose, quoted in the communion antiphon of today's Mass as well as in the Liturgy of the Hours: "I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." The reference is, of course, to the Eucharist. Ignatius laid down his life not to copy Christ but, in Christ and with Christ, to feed the life of Christ's Body with his own.

Ignatius' words raise two questions we must ask ourselves: when I "lay down my life for others," who am I feeding? who am I seeking to build up? Whatever offering we make of our time, energy, company, attentiveness, service, we make not simply to do what Jesus would do, but, in obedience to Christ, to do it to feed Christ's Body with his own love visibly embodied in ours. Anything less is apt to feed and build up only our own ego--a ravenous beast, to be sure, and perfectly capable of grinding us down to fine flour for bread, but not to build up the Body of Christ in love.

Arrest, torment and death were the price Ignatius paid for his fidelity to Christ. Because we don't expect martyrdom, we ought not to imagine that our own fidelity to Christ's command to love as he did will always be rewarded with gratitude, blessing, praise. There is a telling line in Psalm 38: "attack me for seeking what is right". "They" may be the resentful, the jealous, those who fail to understand, or our own doubts, hesitations, failures of nerve in the face of hostility. And "they" may be just as frightening to face as the wild animals in the arena.

Lay down my life? Surely not I, Lord!

You know the answer.

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