THE FEAST OF ST. MATTHEW (Transferred)
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, as Holy Mother Church has done since the earliest times. We count Matthew among the twelve Apostles, and we also call him Evangelist for he was the first who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as attested to by Papias of Hierapolis in the 1st century. This holy Apostle and Evangelist is first mentioned in his own Gospel and by the other Evangelists as a Roman toll-gatherer, though he was a Jew. His office was to collect tolls and customs from those who passed over the sea of Galilee, and it appears to have been near Capernaum that he was engaged in this duty when he heard the words of Jesus, “Follow Me.” As the sons of Zebedee had left their ships, their nets, and their occupation, to obey those words, so St. Matthew gave up profitable employment to do the bidding of Him who had called.
“AND as Jesus passed forth from thence, He saw a man named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and He saith unto him, Follow Me. And he arose and followed Him.” Jesus looked at Matthew, not with the eyes of the body but rather with the eyes of interior pity. He saw the tax collector, and because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: Follow me. This following meant imitating the pattern of Jesus’ life – not just walking after him. So he rose and followed him. There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should we be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew’s assessment, no riches at all. You see, our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way, Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had all the incorruptible treasures and riches of heaven to give.
On hearing Christ’s voice, Matthew opened the door to receive him, as it were, freely consenting to the Lord’s promptings and gave himself to doing whatever Christ determined must be done. He renounced all things for the sake of Jesus. Renunciation. This is the prevailing theme given for our contemplation on this Feast of St. Matthew. You see, the way of Christ is the way of renunciation; renouncing all for the Kingdom of God. This was the way of the Apostles. St. Paul and St. Matthew had forsaken all, not in heart only, but also in deed; not only in deed but also in heart. Hence the excellent power unto salvation unto this day in the Epistles of one, and in the Gospel of the other. Having relinquished all, they were clothed with a poverty of spirit, through which so strongly shines the light of Christ. Their eyes beheld the Lord, and their whole body was full of light. “For it was not,” says St. Chrysostom, “as Moses when he came down from the Mount with the stony tables in his hands, but with the Holy Spirit in their hearts, that the Apostles went forth dispensing spiritual doctrines and gifts.” These redeemed men gave up everything, emptied themselves so that they might be filled with the glory of the Gospel. Their very existence and life’s mission was a continual outpouring of Christ for the healing of the world.
Tradition holds that St. Matthew was martyred by Hirticus, the king of Ethiopia who wished to marry his niece. The Apostle forbids this in the name of Christ’s church a stand which cost him his life. On the front of your service bulletin is the famous 17th-century portrayal of St. Matthew’s martyrdom by Caravaggio. Immediately, our focus is placed on the executioner in the center, just at the critical moment when he seizes the supine, helpless Saint Matthew. The Saint raises his right hand beseechingly toward the executioner, and we see an angel handing down the Martyr’s palm of peace, signifying the presence of God’s comfort and promise just moments before his life on this earth will end.
We sense an utter stillness in the figures of both the executioner and the Apostle while the other figures in the painting scatter in dismay. We see only fragments of these fleeing figures; light falls jaggedly on them like a strobe, emphasizing their confusion. But the fullness of the light shines upon the Martyr. The light of Christ envelopes St. Matthew, radiates from heaven and fills the man, assures him, strengthens him, embraces him. Blinded by glory, he probably didn’t even see the blade as it fell towards his head. The last thing he saw was the glory of the Lord, and it was the first thing he beheld in paradise.
Years earlier, the Lord looked at Matthew and said, “follow me,” and in response, Matthew stood up from the table and followed Jesus. At that moment, the Apostle renounced it all: riches, comfort, importance, safety, autonomy, power... everything. But, like all who bear the Cross and strive to follow Christ, I’m sure he often failed and fell short of his calling. Inevitably there were days he regretted the cruciform life; morning and evening prayers that were more work than devotion; nights where he lay awake questioning the calling of the Lord, doubted it; wondering why in the world he ever got up from the table.
And, perhaps it was on one of those days which Matthew was questioning his call that a man came to them and said to Jesus “Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:57-62).
The glorious light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has shown into our hearts. Therefore, we faint not. We who have been called of Christ, who by the washing of regeneration have been cleansed from the stain of sin, have in our baptism, renounced the hidden things which lurk in the heart: unholy desire, disordered passions, the sins of the flesh, love of the world and the riches thereof. We have been given the Holy Spirit and the power of the resurrection to bear our Cross in this world.
Friends, let us faint not! We have been healed by the Great Physician. Your heavenly father has commanded the light to shine into the darkness of your soul. To you has been given the light of the knowledge of God’s resplendent glory in the face of Jesus Christ, and we too shall be glorified on the last day. A life of renunciation is the only life with room for the light of the Gospel to reside and break forth from it; to shine upon all who in their fallen nature and love of sin renounce the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the glorious light of the Gospel, and it alone, which makes men renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil and call upon the name of the Lord and come to healing waters of regeneration.
Why are you suffering? Why are you being tested? Because you, like St. Matthew, have died unto yourself, you have chosen to walk the way of the Cross, upon the road of sorrow and suffering, but it is the only road that ends in eternal joy and glory. Friends, hear what our Lord says unto any and all who strive to live in conformity with Him, “For the gate is narrow, and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The gospel-marked life is one lived in the light, basking in the radiant glory of Christ, humbly and gratefully existing under the light of his merciful countenance.
And it is a life wholly abandoned to His will, and his desire for us, and, for his kingdom purposes. Beloved, you are not your own; we are not our own but grateful servants who have been called to renounce anything which causes us to stumble or God forbid, give up. Beloved, let us this day renounce fear and press on into whatever the Lord has placed before you. Keep your hand to the plow. Take courage and be willing to trust Christ through today’s challenge and tomorrow’s sorrow; the difficulties which will always accompany the renuciative life. For, his light shines in the darkest hours of the soul, and be assured, Kingdom glory awaits those who do not look back. Let us pray,
O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy blessed Son didst call Matthew from the receipt of custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist; Grant us grace to forsake all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches, and to follow the same thy Son Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen+