Thursday, May 14, 2015

St. Matthias: The Church's First Decision


     Today is Ascension Thursday (although the Ascension will not be celebrated until Sunday in some dioceses); it is also the date of the Feast of St. Matthias, who was chosen to take the place of Judas after he had betrayed The Lord and then killed himself. In the Scriptural account the election of Matthias comes in between the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost.  We sometimes refer to he latter feast as the "Birthday of the Church", because we see the dramatic inrushing of the Holy Spirit, followed by Peter and the others taking up their mission with a vigor and confidence that was not previously visible.  But just as the first miracle of Jesus takes place at Cana before, as He tells His mother Mary, His "hour has come", in the selection of Matthias we see the Church acting as The Church even before she has fully taken up her mission.
     I heard an excellent homily at the Mass for today's feast in which Monsignor compared the Ascension to a graduation or commencement, an event that marks somebody moving on to higher level.  Following the Ascension Christ would now be working not just in Galilee and Judea, but in and for the whole world; it also marks the way for His followers, who will, as the Church, become part of his Mystical Body. It is just at this point that we meet St. Matthias.  The only mention of Matthias in Holy Scripture (at least by that name) appears in the Acts of the Apostles:

In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, "Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus.  For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry . . . For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it'; and 'His office let another take.'  So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, "Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:15-26)

     As an Apostle Mathias was ipso facto an important person, and there are various traditions identifying him with other names that come up in the New Testament, and about his ministry and martyrdom; the passage above, however,  is the only canonical information we have.  Which is to say that whatever importance he had in his own time, a large part of his significance for us lies in the very fact and manner of his selection.
     So, what do we see in this passage?  We see Peter taking the initiative: he presides and authoritatively interprets Scripture; it is universally understood that the Apostles hold an office that someone must fill when another relinquishes it; it is accepted that their choice is guided by the Holy Spirit. It is also concrete confirmation that Jesus' mission didn't pass from the world when he did, but will be carried forward by his followers.
     This passage and others like it were very important to me at the time of my reversion to the Church midway through my thirtieth year. One of the first things I did following my own initial conversion experience was to read through the New Testament (as I recount here), where in this passage  I could see not just the Early Church, but the Catholic Church with Pope and Bishops already in place just a few days after the Ascension, and already exercising magisterial authority, with the help of the Third Person of the Trinity, even before the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit a few days later at Pentacost.  It confirmed for me that if I wanted to set aside my disordered life and follow Jesus, I also needed to submit to the authority of the Church that He had established from the beginning. Whatever rough patches I’ve encountered since, I’ve never lost sight of that conviction.


Concluding Prayer from today’s Liturgy of the Hours:

O God,
Who assigned St. Mathias
a place in the college of Apostles,
grant us, through his intercession, that,
rejoicing at how your love has been allotted to us,
we may merit to be numbered among the elect.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever,
-          Amen.