Years ago I visited Izmir, Turkey, with a classmate of mine. We were searching the city, formerly Smyrna, for traces of St. Polycarp, one of its first Christian bishops, who was martyred there in AD 153. With difficulty, we found a small Catholic church named for him surrounded now by a large Muslim neighborhood, and also the ancient agora where he was condemned and put to death.
I think of him today because today’s Office of Readings offers St. Ignatius of Antioch’s “Letter to the Magnesians,” which was written in Smyrna early in the 2nd century and mentions Polycarp, its bishop. Under arrest on his way to Rome where he will be executed in the Colisseum , Ignatius writes to the Magnesians urging them to be faithful disciples of Christ and imitate him. Polycarp gave him support on his way to death.
One sentence of his letter caught my eye. “Be moved by his goodness,” he writes, “for if Jesus were ever to imitate the way we behave ourselves, we would be truly lost.”
For Ignatius, then, when the scriptures say Jesus “ was like us in all things except sin” they do not mean that he embraced our mediocrity, our compliance with evil, our pursuit of success and fame–all temptations he faced in the desert. He was uniquely human. A unique messenger from God.
Human goodness as we know it is weighed down by weaknesses in the best of us. Human behavior as we experience it suffers from their presence.
Christ came that we might imitate him, the “way, the truth and the life.” He offers an example of what we as human beings should be.
Ignatius’ letter indicates a certain forgetfulness of Jesus Christ taking place in his day. The apostles and other eyewitnesses have passed on, and other teachers are taking their place. They have rivals: some are traditional Jews, who are enticing Christians back to the ancient wisdom and practices of Judaism. Others are from popular religious and philosophic groups, like the gnostics, a rising power who taught then.
What Ignatius’ time needed were Christian leaders with links to the first followers of Jesus and could vouch for him and pass on their witness, especially through the gospel writings that reported what he said and did. “What was he like?” “What did he say?” “What did he do?” The gospels had recently been written.
“Be convinced of the birth and passion and resurrection which took place at the time of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate; for these things were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ, our hope, from which God grant that none of you be turned aside.”
Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch are key figures in our Church. Both not only taught about Jesus Christ but imitated him in their deaths. Later Christian writers recognized their importance. In the late 2nd century, Irenaeus wrote:
“Polycarp was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna by apostles in Asia…He always taught what he had learned from the apostles, and the Church has handed down that teaching which alone is true. His successors testify to this. ( Adversus Haereses. Book III, Chapter 4, Verse 3 and Chapter 3, Verse 4)
Tertullian wrote about AD 208:
“Heresies are novelties with no connection to the teaching of Christ. Some may claim they come from apostles. We say: where did your church come from? Give me a list of your bishops from now till the apostles or to some bishop appointed by him. The Smyrnaeans go back to Polycarp and John, and the Romans to Clement and Peter; let heretics come up with something to match this.” (De praescripione heret.)
It was a dangerous century, a transitional time, when big changes were taking place. Maybe we’re facing something like it today?