Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Some Notes for the Patronal Festival of Saint Matthias


In the Western Church the feast of Saint Matthias was traditionally kept on 24 February, a date which frequently falls in Lent. For this reason his feast was transferred by the Roman Church in recent liturgical revisions to 14 May, “so as to celebrate it in Eastertide close to the Solemnity of the Ascension" (The Roman Calendar, 1969). Revised Angican Calendars have tended to follow this practice, with the result that at St Matthias’, Bellwoods, this year the Patronal Festival has fallen into conflict with Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, which is why we are keeping our Patronal Festival two Sundays after the feast rather than one.

Almost nothing is known of St Matthias. It might even be said that he is more obscure than SS Simon and Jude, as they are mentioned in the Gospels, and Jude has to be distinguished from Judas Iscariot! Perhaps he is most important because his election to the apostolate shows the way the that Church would continue to choose its pastors and guides, by bringing forward members as the Spirit led.

Our Patron Saint’s name is the Greek form of Mattathias, Hebrew Mattithiah, signifying "gift of Yahweh." The late mediaeval Golden Legend says “Matthias in Hebrew is as much to say as given to our Lord, or a gift of our Lord, or else humble or little.” St Matthias is certainly humble in terms of personal fame! He is not mentioned in the Gospels, but according to Acts 1.21 was one of the disciples of Jesus, and had been with Him from His baptism by John to the Ascension. Indeed the lack of definite information has led some people to identify him with this or that little-known figure, including Nathaniel, Barnabas, and even Zacchaeus. The Syriac version of the historian Eusebius apparently calls him ‘Tolmai’ for some reason.

St Matthias is only mentioned in the New Testament in Acts 1.21-26, when he was one of the two disciples selected as candidates to fill the place among the Twelve Apostles left by Judas. After prayer lots were cast and Matthias was chosen. There is a charming note in the life of St Matthias in the Golden Legend that “the holy Saint Denis saith that the lot was a ray and a shining which came and shone upon him.” Nothing else is said of him in the canonical scriptures.

Where the canonical sources fail us, the legends more than make up for. The Synopsis of Dorotheus of Tyre (c. 300?) reports that “Matthias preached the Gospel to barbarians and cannibals in the interior of Ethiopia, at the harbour of the sea of Hyssus, at the mouth of the river Phasis. He died at Sebastopolis, and was buried there, near the Temple of the Sun.” Ethiopia here was really Colchis on the Black Sea, where Jason and the Argonauts went to win the Golden Fleece. Sebastopolis, by the way, is the modern Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia. The fourteenth century Greek historian Nicephorus says that Matthias preached the Gospel in Judaea and then in Ethiopia, (this also meant Colchis), where he was crucified; his grave is shown there in the ruins of a Roman fortress. Other sources simply put his mission in "the city of the cannibals" in Ethiopia, which may or may not mean Colchis.
A different tradition was that Matthias was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded with an axe. This tradition gained the most popularity in the Latin Church, and was included in the Golden Legend. There we learn that Matthias was a native of Bethlehem, where he was trained in the Law and the Prophets. After he had been elected to the apostolate, he preached in Jerusalem and worked miracles of healing in the name of Jesus. For this he was accused before the high priest (at least that what I take the Legend to mean by “the Bishop of Jerusalem”), but refused to answer, saying, “to be a Christian is nothing criminal but it is a glorious life”. Offered a chance to repent, Matthias said “God forbid that I should repent of the truth that I have truly found, and become an apostate” (was he perhaps thinking of Judas whom he had replaced?). He returned to preaching by word and example, converting many, until finally his enemies got two false witnesses to accuse him, and the flase witnesses cast the first stones against him. Matthias “prayed that the stones might be buried that the false witnesses had cast upon him, for to bear witness against them that stoned him,” and in the end they beheaded him with an axe, in the Roman manner. He died commending his spirit to God.
Finally we should note a tradition that St Matthias died of old age. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) said that “Matthias, who was one of the seventy, was numbered along with the eleven apostles, and preached in Jerusalem, and fell asleep and was buried there.”
These stories have no historical value, although the words “to be a Christian is nothing criminal but it is a glorious life” are well worth remembering. It is very likely that he never went to the country we call Ethiopia.
The First Reading: Acts 1.15-26
The account of the election of Matthias to the apostleship presents us with certain historical difficulties which we cannot treat in any detail here. Since we have no other account, we cannot check the accuracy of the one we do have. However, the fact that neither Barsabbas nor Matthias is ever mentioned again would appear to confirm the fact that a choice was made to fill Judas’ place: it is hard to see any motive for inventing a story in honour of one who is not mentioned again in the historical tradition.
Notice that St Peter takes the lead among among the Twelve and the wider community, as he was to do on the day of Pentecost (2.14) and as he had done in response to the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16.16; Luke 9.20).
The concern of the Apostles to complete the number is interesting; for the institution of Twelve Apostles was not maintained in the Church. There is no account of a further election when St James the brother of John was executed (Acts 12:2). This is a matter we cannot enter into here.
Verses 18-19, in which Peter appears to narrate the death of Judas are another problem. It is strange that a person speaking in Jerusalem to Jerusalemites would refer to “the dwellers at Jerusalem” as if he were hundreds of miles away, or translate “Akeldama” for people who spoke Aramaic. It has been suggested that St Luke, to whom the book of Acts is ascribed, might well have inserted these details for Theophilus (see 1.1), and perhaps the verses shouldbe printed in parentheses. Then there is the problem that this account differs from the one in Matthew 27.3-8, about which we can only note here that two tradiitons of Judas’ end had developed before the Gospels were written down, and urge readers to examine the various commentaries.
The choice between Barsabbas and Matthias was made by casting lots, not ballots: voting by ballot was not a Jewish custom; the mthod of discerning the Lord’s will in the Old Testament was by lot. Moreover a ballot would not harmonize with thr prayer “show which of these two thou hast chosen”. What they did was to give each candidate a tablet, bearing his name, to place in the urn; and that which fell out, on the urn being shaken, determined which was successful. This is the only known occasion on which the early Church used lots to ascertain God’s will; it is not stated by what method of choice was used when the Twelve told he brethren to “pick out from among you” the seven to assist in the service(6.3-5).
Psalm 15.
As the first reading tells of the choice of Matthias, who has been steadfast from the beginning, to take the the place of Judas, who turned away to his own place, a contrast between the just and unjust, the faithful and the enemy, and the fruitful and unfruitful branches runs through the rest of the readings. Psalm 15 is a liturgy for admission to the temple. The question is posed in verse 1: who is worthy to enter the congregation? Verses 2-7 answer it: only the one with the moral qualities required. The description of what this persoan does not do establishes the contreast with the wicked.
Some cross-references. Ps 24.3-6 is a parallel to Ps 15. On verse 2, see Isaiah 33.15 On v. 5 (He has sworn to do no wrong, and does not go back on his word), see Ps 24:4. The BAS version of this verse is flat and seemingly uninspired compared to that in the Prayer Book Psalter (He that sweareth unto his neighbour and disappointeth him not, though it were to his own hindrance); another translation from the Hebrew gives: “he swears to [his own] hurt and does not retract” [from The Judaica Press Complete Tanach, which may be found at http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/16236/jewish/Chapter-15.htm].
Again, v. 6 seems a trifle weak, rendering “who does not put out his money at interest” [RSV] with “he does not give his money in hope of gain”. The Biblical teaching about usury (see Exodus 22.35, Leviticus 25.35-37) is not always clear, and it has been a thorny issue for centuries. Nonetheless we need to make sure that it continues to be a problem for us.
This is a psalm well-suited for use in examnation of conscience.
The Epistle: Philippians 3.13b-21. (For some reason the lectionary in the BAS and For All the Saints gives this reading as 3:13b-22; Philippians 3 has only 21 verses).
St Paul has just finished a glorious passage [3.4-12] in which he recounts his reasons for confidence in the Lord, culminating in the exclamation that though he has not yet achieved the goal, the resurrection from the dead, he can say “I press on to make it my own, becasue Christ Jesus has made me his own”. Nw he calls on his hearers and readers to imitate him in pressing toward the goal of God’s call in Christ (see Romans 5.2). This is the sign of a mature Christian, holding fast to the faith. It is at this point that we meet the contrast: there are those who do not strive for the upward call. There is some disagreement as to just who the “many” are. Some refer to verses 2-4 of this chapter and a ‘circumcision party” in the early church that demanded fill adherence to old law. In this case the references to the “belly” would be to the dietary laws and to “their glory is their shame” to circumcision; others disagree, seeing in the “belly” rather general greed and selfishness, and in “shame” perhaps teh general dissolutness of life that St Paul saw as rampant in the Gentile world. This is a question on which I can only refer you to the variety of Bible commentaries for a variety of answers. For this feast, and in the context of its readings, the “many” include all who having been Christians turn away to seek salvation somewhaere or in something other than the cross of Jesus. They must be Christians who have fallen away or pose a split in the community; otherwise Paul would have no reason to mention them “with tears”. In the last verses he recalls his readers and hearers to “the upward call” and the promise of life in Christ.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint John, 15.1-6-16
With Judas’ end in mind, the contrast between the branches of the Christ-vine that bear fruit and the ones that do not, and the warning to all his disciples of the fate of the unfruitful branch might be uppermost in our minds as we read this passage from St John. Like the one who is fit to enter the tabernacle, and like the mature Christian imitating St Paul, the fruitful branches will abide in Christ’s love, and.their joy will be complete. However, the last words of this passage reflect clearly the election of Matthias: “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you shall ask the Father in my name, he will give you.” For if Matthias had followed Christ from the baptism of John, he was called by Christ; he was sent out with the seventy to proclaim the good news. When a new apostle was needed, the choice was put into the hands of the Lord. Nowhere do we hear of Matthias applying for the position. Through the voice of the brethren, and then by the lot, it was the Spirit of Christ that chose him. Where he went and where he preached is of little importance, as long as he remained faithful (though if he did go to the real Ethiopia it would be pretty cool). I doubt that I need to suggest how we may apply all this to our own lives and callings

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