In today’s letter to the Romans, St. Ignatius is preparing for martyrdom. As always, I recommend reading the whole letter. It won’t take long. But for the purposes of this series, I’m going to focus on chapter VII.
The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be ye on my side, that is, on the side of God. Do not speak of Jesus Christ, and yet set your desires on the world. Let not envy find a dwelling-place among you; nor even should I, when present with you, exhort you to it, be ye persuaded to listen to me, but rather give credit to those things which I now write to you. For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that liveth and speaketh, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.
Ignatius’ closing sentence is the one on which I want to focus. Given his friendship with Polycarp and the likelihood that he also knew St. John the Theologian, I don’t find it surprising that we see the influence of John’s theology of the Eucharist filling Ignatius’ thoughts.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven — not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever. (John 6:54-58)
Facing martyrdom, Ignatius’ thoughts and desires were narrowed to that which brings true life. Like Jesus, the language he uses is deeply rooted in the physical. It is not ethereal or divorced from our reality. If anything, it is more real and more physical than all other food. It has become the one food Ignatius desires over all other food. Notice that he does not desire this over other spiritual things. He desires it over other food and sensible pleasures. We see the intertwining of the physical and the spiritual, not their separation. And, of course, in the light of the Incarnation, that’s precisely as it should be.
This is not really an explanation of the Eucharist, per se. But it does illustrate the deeply Eucharistic manner in which Ignatius viewed life and reality and the way it had shaped and formed him. Can we say that the Baptist perspective on the Eucharist accomplishes the same thing?