Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Death and Power

I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. -- St. Ignatius of Antioch
This quote from Monday's Office of Readings for that day's feast struck me like a ton of bricks. It was like a light coming on, like suddenly finding a valuable tool in my hand. Death and power. The clarity was astounding.
St. Ignatius was a Bishop who died a martyr's death less than a century after the time of Christ. When you read the entirety of his letter, it is clear that his flock was intent on rescuing him from the death he knew awaited him. St. Ignatius was intent on blocking their rescue. It was his strong desire, which he knew to be in union with the desire of the Holy Spirit for him, to give his life in the Coliseum. He spoke of his death in Eucharistic terms, famously stating "I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread." St. Ignatius was not depressed; he was not suicidal. He was living his priesthood and knew himself as a sacrificial offering, in union with Christ's own self-offering. He preferred death not because of despair, but because of his hope in Christ and of his deep love for those he served. The sacrifice the Father called him to was to sanctify his Bride, the Church. 
And this offering is contrasted with power on earth. His congregation loved him, apparently, and grieved at the thought of losing his presence with them. They wanted to employ whatever they could to keep him with them. St. Ignatius also speaks of the temptation he faced in having his attention turned aside from God. Power over earthly kingdoms was one of the devil's temptations Jesus faced as well (Lk. 4:5-7).
How clearly these things contrasted in my mind when I read St. Ignatius' words. I prefer death to power, because this is the way of Christ. What are the tantalizations of power that draw me, or give me the opportunity to choose the way of sacrificial self-offering instead? Perhaps I am itching to blast some music and drift off into its beautiful comfort, but my daughter wishes instead to tell me her plans for a princess party. Perhaps I have dishes to clean, even though I want to use that ten minute window of time to check my email. Maybe my friend's opinion just begs for the bit of information I have that she seems to be missing. I think what registers as a self-serving power play can only be detected by one's own heart. But the key is that music, email and information are not bad things. They are goods. So are attention given to one's children, domestic service, and humility or restraint. This is not a matter of rejecting sin and choosing good. This is a matter of preferring death to power. With my whole being, I want that music. But I can choose to lay aside what I have the power to give myself to give life and attention to one who asks it of me. I want to communicate with my friends -- this gives me life. But laying aside what I have the power to give myself to offer quickly-forgotten loving service is worship of God. My knowledge can bless, but my invisible gift of respect and forbearance is a sacrifice of love done in secret. 
The truth is the way of death, the preference for death in Christ, is true Eucharistic power. What I want to call worldly power is a good, and has to do with conditions and outcomes that are reasonably within my control. Eucharistic power relies entirely on God because it involves giving unto death, with a focus not on what I desire to produce, but in it I am entirely entrusted to the will of Another. I cannot have an agenda in the realm of Eucharistic power, I can only entrust myself because of love. Struggle and strife is the result of anything less.
"I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth." St. Ignatius was fully conformed to the image of Christ. May I too live that way.

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