This is the second of two Advent Meditations on the theme “Mary in Holy Waiting”. The first is posted here.
“Blessed are those servants, whom their lord when he cometh shall find watching”
Watching and waiting are the spiritual activities of the soul in the season of Advent. They signify our looking towards God, our looking expectantly at the coming of God’s Word and Son. Mary in Advent is in Holy Waiting; a waiting upon the fullness of time, upon the birth of God’s Word and Son through her. Her waiting is the watching and waiting of the Church upon the motions of God’s Word coming to birth in us.
Tonight also marks the commemoration of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and martyr. His commemoration complements our Advent programme about Mary in Holy Waiting. One of the Apostolic Fathers, that is to say, one of the early figures of the Christian Church who, whether they knew the Apostles personally or directly (some may have, some may have not), nonetheless preserved and transmitted “the apostolic teaching and tradition between the time of the Apostles themselves and the latter years of the second century” (Max Staniforth, To A.L.M. (Intro) to the Apostolic Fathers). Ignatius was martyred, c. 115, after an episcopal career of some forty years. A figure of great renown, we actually know very little about him apart from his character that is revealed in his seven remarkable epistles written on the road to his martyrdom in Rome. We do not even know the exact charge which led to his martyrdom.
His epistles bring out, I suggest, the essential Marian quality of watching and waiting upon the Word and Will of God. Three things stand out in his epistles: his embrace of martyrdom; his insistence upon the three-fold ministry of the Church, especially episcopacy; and his emphasis upon the doctrine of the Incarnation against the Jews and the Docetists – the latter being the term for the earliest heresy of the Church, already attacked in the epistles of John, that claims that the human life of Christ is all a kind of play-acting, a sham, a mere appearance in contrast to reality since the idea of God becoming man is abhorrent where matter is seen as evil and spirit as good and pure.
In many ways, Ignatius’ epistles already point in the direction of a creedal understanding of the Christian faith that will emerge more explicitly in the fourth century. The key doctrine for him is the Incarnation which leads to his conviction about martyrdom and about the ordered life of the Church. His epistles breath that positive spirit of living for and with Christ already signified in Mary’s fiat mihi, “be it unto me according to thy word,” the idea of our life with God because of God’s embrace of our humanity. For Ignatius this wonder contributes to a new sensibility, a conviction about immortality such that martyrdom is the necessary witness to the truth of Christianity, a martyrdom which he enthusiastically accepts like Mary’s “be it unto me according to thy word.” In a world of suicide bombers, this may trouble us but if we look more closely we can see how different this Ignatian/Marian sense of commitment and witness is from these contemporary acts in which martyrdom is really an act of terrorism for political purposes to which religious concepts have been sadly twisted and perverted.