Ignatius on Venerating the Saints

Better yet, coax the wild beasts, so that they may become my tomb and leave nothing of my body behind, lest I become a burden to anyone one I have fallen asleep. Then I will truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world will no longer see my body.

(Ignatius to the Romans, 4:2)

Ignatius wrote a series of “goodbye letters” to many churches leading up to his martyrdom as he embraced his death with courage. From his quotation above, one can determine how it was he expected to die: he would be fed to lions.

It is interesting that in embracing his final moments he wished the lions would totally consume every part of his body. He does not want his body to become a burden to any of the Christians. I don’t know exactly how this would have been done, but I can imagine it was quite the process for Christians to retrieve from Rome the remains of a criminal sentenced to death, and then bury them. Ignatius wanted to love the Romans even in death by alleviating the need for any of them to be left with retrieving and burying his body.

This incredible courage and love displayed subtly communicates to us that Ignatius does not seem to share the kind of veneration that Roman Catholics engage in today. His desire was not for his body to be hacked into small pieces and distributed to churches for them to preserve and venerate. He wanted his body gone. He had no desire for his body to be kept safe in churches. His desire for himself was to be buried, or better yet, entirely consumed by the beasts so that he would not need to be buried. Regardless, there an antithesis to veneration in Ignatius’ sentiments.

There is another equally early attestation relevant to bodily relics worthy of note from the Martyrdom of Polycarp,

And so later on we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and deposited them in a suitable place.

(18:2)

While this sentiment certainly expresses a very high view of the deceased body of a great Christian, it nonetheless falls very short of the kind of veneration of modern Roman Catholicism. Even while the Christians saw a kind of glory to the bones of their great martyr Polycarp, they nonetheless expressed their honor toward the man by burying his remains. There is no indication of saving portions of these bones and bowing before them, kissing them, praying to them, or attributing any kind of power to them.

If only today’s Roman Catholics would learn from these very early witnesses of the church. The best way to honor your dead is to bury their bodies, not worship them.

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