Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

September 21

Today is the feast day of Saint Matthew.  Ora pro nobis.

Matthew, a Jew, was a tax collector for the Romans and accused of being a traitor to his own people, went on to write his Gospel.  In the list of the apostles (Matt 10:3) Matthew is called “the tax collector”. Jesus saw him sitting by the customs house in Capernaum and said to him: “Follow me”. And leaving everything, he got up and followed him (Mt 9:9). Mark (2:14) and Luke (5:27-32) call him Levi when they describe this event.

As a Roman tax collector, the people would have  regarded Matthew as an exploiter and collaborator with the Romans, in that sense a traitor to his people. And so when Jesus and other disciples were at dinner at Matthew’s house, the scribes and Pharisees taunt the disciples, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

“The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1: 1). The Eagle and Lion have already risen in the heavens of the holy liturgy; today we salute the Man; and next month the Ox will appear, to complete the number of the four living creatures, who surround His throne in Heaven and draw the chariot of God through the world (Ezech. 1; according to the traditional interpretation, the “living creature” with the face of an eagle represents St. John, that with the face of a lion represents St. Mark, that with the face of an ox represents St. Luke, and that with the face of a man represents St. Matthew). These mysterious beings, with their six seraph wings, are ever gazing with their innumerable eyes upon the Lamb Who stands upon the throne as it were slain; and they rest not day and night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.” St. John beheld them giving to the elect the signal to praise their Creator and Redeemer; and when all created beings in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth, have adoringly proclaimed that the Lamb, Who was slain, is worthy of power and divinity and glory and empire forever, it is they that add to the world’s homage the seal of their testimony, saying: “Amen!” (Apoc. 5: 14)

Great and singular, then, is the glory of the Evangelists. The name of Matthew signifies one who is given. He gave himself when, at the word of Jesus “follow Me,” he rose up and followed Him; but far greater was the gift he received from God in return. The Most High, who looks down from Heaven upon the low things of earth, loves to choose the humble for the princes of His people. Levi, occupied in a profession that was hated by the Jews and despised by the Gentiles (tax collector), belonged to the lowest rank of society; but still more humble was he in heart, when, laying aside the delicate reserve shown in his regard by the other Evangelists, he openly placed his former ignominious title beside the glorious one of Apostle. By so doing, he published the magnificent mercy of Him Who had come to heal the sick not the healthy, and to call not the just but sinners. For thus exalting the abundance of God’s grace, he merited its superabundance; St. Matthew was called to be the first Evangelist. Under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he wrote, with that inimitable simplicity which speaks straight to the heart, the Gospel of the Messias expected by Israel, and announced by the prophets; the descendant of its kings, and Himself the King of the daughter of Sion; of the Messias Who had come not to destroy the Law, but to bring it to its full completion in an everlasting, universal covenant.

In his simple-hearted gratitude, Levi made a feast for his Divine Benefactor. It was at this banquet that Jesus, defending His disciple as well as Himself, replied to those who pretended to be scandalized: “Can the children of the Bridegroom mourn, as long as the Bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast” (Matt. 9: 15). Clement of Alexandria bears witness to the Apostle’s subsequent austerity; assuring us that he lived on nothing but vegetables and wild fruits. The Breviary lessons will tell us moreover of his zeal for the Master Who had so sweetly touched his heart, and of his fidelity in preserving for Him souls inebriated with the “wine springing forth virgins” (Zach. 9: 17). This fidelity, indeed, cost him his life; his martyrdom was in defense and confirmation of the duties and rights of holy virginity. To the end of time the Church, in consecrating Her virgins, will make use of the beautiful blessing pronounced by him over the Ethiopian princess, which the blood of the Apostle and Evangelist has imbued with a special virtue (Pontifcale Romanum).

The Church gives us this short account of a life better known to God than to men:

St. Matthew, also named Levi, was an Apostle and Evangelist. He was sitting in the custom-house at Capharnaum when called by Christ, Whom he immediately followed; and then made a feast for Him and His disciples. After the resurrection of Christ, and before setting out for the province which it was his lot to evangelize, St. Matthew was the first to write the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He wrote it in Hebrew, for the sake of those of the circumcision, who had been converted. Soon after, he went into Ethiopia, where he preached the Gospel, and confirmed his teaching by many miracles.

One of the greatest of these was his raising to life the king’s daughter, whereby he converted the king and his wife, and the whole country. After the king’s death, his daughter Iphigenia was demanded in marriage by his successor Hirtacus, who, finding that through St. Matthew’s exhortation she had vowed her virginity to God and now persevered in her holy resolution, ordered the Apostle to be put to death, as he was celebrating the Holy Mysteries at the altar. Thus on the eleventh of the Kalends of October (September 21), he crowned his apostolate with the glory of martyrdom. His body was translated to Salerno; and in the time of Pope St. Gregory VII it was laid in a church dedicated to his name, where it is piously honored by a great concourse of people.

O St. Matthew, how pleasing must thy humility have been to Our Lord; that humility which has raised thee so high in the Kingdom of Heaven, and which made thee, on earth, the confidant of Incarnate Wisdom. The Son of God, Who hides His secrets from the wise and prudent and reveals them to little ones, renovated thy soul by intimacy with Himself, and filled it with the new wine of His heavenly doctrine. So fully didst thou understand His love, that He chose thee to be the first historian of His life on earth. The Man-God revealed Himself through thee to the Church. She has inherited thy glorious teaching as She calls it in the Secret of the Mass; for the Synagogue refused to understand both the Divine Master and the prophets who were His heralds.

There is one teaching, indeed, which not all, even of the elect, can understand and receive; just as in Heaven not all follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, nor can all sing the new canticle reserved to those whose love here on earth has been undivided. O Evangelist of holy virginity, and Martyr for its sake! Watch over the choicest portion of Our Lord’s flock. Remember also, O Levi, all those for whom, as thou tellest us, the Emmanuel received His beautiful Name of Savior. The whole redeemed world honors thee and implores thy assistance. Thou hast recorded for us the admirable Sermon on the Mount; by the path of virtue there traced out, lead us to that Kingdom of Heaven, which is the ever-recurring theme of thy inspired writing. (1)

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876 

St. Matthew, the holy Apostle and Evangelist, was born at Cana in Galilee, where our Lord wrought his first miracle, by changing water into wine. The Gospel says that he was a publican or tax-collector, an office greatly despised by the Jews, first, because they considered themselves a free people, and thought the government had no right to exact taxes from them; and secondly, because those who were in this office generally defrauded the people, extorting from them more than was lawful. Hence they were classed and counted among the public sinners. 

One day, when Matthew was sitting in his custom-house, in the discharge of his duty, Christ passed with His disciples, and seeing Matthew, He looked lovingly on him and said: “Follow me!” Enlightened and moved by divine grace, Matthew arose, and following Christ, invited Him into his house, where he prepared a banquet for Him, to which he invited many publicans and sinners, that they might hear the instructions of the Saviour and be converted. The Pharisees complained of it to the disciples of the Saviour, saying; “Why does your master eat with publicans and sinners? ” Christ answered for His disciples and said: “They that are well need not the physician, but they that are sick.” By these words, He desired to intimate that they had no cause to murmur at His associating with sinners, as one could not reasonably reprove a physician for being with the sick; and He had come into the world to convert sinners, as a physician goes to heal the sick. When the feast was ended, Matthew followed Christ and was numbered by Him among the Apostles. Having received the Holy Ghost, on the day of Pentecost, he labored like the other Apostles for the conversion of the Jews. But before going to the district appointed to him as the field wherein he had to sow the word of God, he wrote his Gospel, as a short sketch of the life, sufferings and death of the Saviour, in order to impress better the teachings of the Apostles on the minds of the newly converted. This was immediately copied a great many times and preached by the other Apostles in those countries which they were to convert. 

St. Matthew went to Ethiopia and thence into the neighboring states. He began his mission at Nadabar, the capital, where he met two notorious magicians named Zaroes and Arphaxad, who, by their hellish art, caused people to become sick, after which they cured them by magic, and thus gained the reputation of performing miracles, besides which, they gathered great riches. The holy Apostle discovered the fraudulent means by which they deceived the credulous, and he admonished the inhabitants of the city, not to fear those two men, as he was preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in whose name, all such diabolical art would be destroyed. When the two magicians saw that they lost credit and gain by these remarks of the Apostle, they endeavored by new sorcery to frighten the people; but the Saint, making their fraud public, caused himself to be greatly esteemed, so that the people commenced to attend his sermons, and to take an interest in the faith he announced. 

The many miracles which the Saint performed at length opened the eyes of the blind pagans; they recognized their error, and truth took possession of their hearts. What more then all else furthered the conversion of this nation, was the miracle by which the holy Apostle raised from the dead the royal princess. Her father, the king of Ethiopia, had called the magicians to his court and requested them to give back life to his child. The wicked deceivers used all their evil powers; but the spirits of hell which they invoked, could not reanimate the lifeless body. Hence the holy Apostle, was called, who going towards the dead, commanded her, in the name of Jesus Christ, to arise. The princess immediately arose, full of life and health, in presence of the king and all his courtiers. This miracle induced the king, with his whole court, to receive instruction in the Christian faith, and to be baptized with great solemnity. The example of the king was followed by all the people, and thus was paganism conquered in that country. 

The holy Apostle then went into other cities, villages and hamlets, everywhere preaching the Gospel of Christ, and confirming it, according to the promise of his heavenly Master, by many and great miracles, which caused a great number of people to be converted. The holy life which the Saint led, aided him also greatly in impressing the heathens with the truth of his words. Besides his other virtues, they especially admired the rigor which he manifested towards himself. His whole sustenance consisted of herbs. Meat, wine, and all other things agreeable to the taste, he never touched. He allowed himself no rest; he was all day occupied in preaching and instructing, and passed the greater part of the night in prayer. 

Incontestible writings prove that he preached the Gospel for twenty-three years, partly in Ethiopia, partly in other countries, at the same time founding almost innumerable Churches, and supplying them with priests and bishops, in order to preserve the faith he had taught. How much he had to endure in travelling through so many barbarous countries, how he was persecuted, how many thousands he converted, is known only to God; suffice it to say, he was truly an Apostle of Jesus Christ. 

Finally, he ended his life by a glorious martyrdom before the Altar. It happened as follows: Iphigenia, the eldest daughter of the newly converted king of Ethiopia, had not only become a Christian, but also, with the knowledge and consent of the holy Apostle, had consecrated her virginity to the Almighty, after having frequently heard the Saint preach on the priceless value of purity, and exhort others to guard and preserve it. Her example was followed by many other virgins, who, choosing the princess as their superior, lived together and occupied their time in prayer and work. Hirtacus, who succeeded to the throne, asked the hand of the princess in marriage. The virgin consecrated to the Almighty refused him, saying that she had promised to be faithful to her heavenly bridegroom. The king, greatly provoked at this answer, called St. Matthew, as the instructor of Iphigenia, and requested him to induce her to consent to his offer. The Saint promised to give his advice to Iphigenia on the following day, in presence of the king. The next morning, in a sermon, he explained first, that matrimony, instituted by the Almighty, is in itself a lawful and holy state, which everyone who desired it might enter. After this, he began to praise the state of virginity and to demonstrate that it is much more agreeable and pleasing to God than the state of matrimony, adding very emphatically, that when any one, after due deliberation, had consecrated his purity to the Almighty, the vow could not be broken without great sin. 

A servant, said he, among other illustrations, would deserve punishment if he dared to tempt the spouse of a king to break her marriage vow; much more punishable, then, would he be, who had the heart to entice a spouse of Christ to become faithless to her word. Hence, he concluded, as Iphigenia had promised herself to Christ, it was not allowed to rob Him of her, and persuade her to unite herself to a human being. Having admonished all present to remain constant in the true faith, even if it should cost their blood and life, he proceeded to the altar to perform the holy sacrifice of Mass. Hirtacus left the church, full of rage, and following the advice of some wicked people, sent some of his soldiers to kill St. Matthew. One of these, going towards the Saint, who was standing before the altar, thrust his spear into his body; and the Saint, sinking down, expired. Some maintain, that he was beheaded with an axe; but it is quite sure that he was killed while standing at the Altar, thus becoming himself a victim, at the moment when he was offering the pure sacrifice of the New Testament. 

He is called by the holy Fathers the victim of virginal purity, as he shed his blood in defending it. Hirtacus, informed of the death of St. Matthew, hastened to the house where Iphigenia and the other virgins dwelt, and repeated his demand. When she once more courageously refused his hand, he commanded her house to be set on fire, and burned to the ground with all its inmates. His wicked design was, however, frustrated; for when the flames began to arise, St. Matthew appeared and warded them off in such a manner, that neither the house nor those within it were injured. Hirtacus was punished for his evil deeds with so terrible a leprosy, that, unable to endure the sight of himself, he died by his own hands. (2)

Of Matthew’s subsequent career we have only inaccurate or legendary data. St. Irenæus tells us that Matthew preached the Gospel among the Hebrews, St. Clement of Alexandria claiming that he did this for fifteen years, and Eusebius maintains that, before going into other countries, he gave them his Gospel in the mother tongue. Ancient writers are not as one as to the countries evangelized by Matthew, but almost all mention Ethiopia to the south of the Caspian Sea (not Ethiopia in Africa), and some Persia and the kingdom of the Parthians, Macedonia, and Syria. According to Heracleon, who is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Matthew did not die a martyr, but this opinion conflicts with all other ancient testimony. Let us add, however, that the account of his martyrdom in the apocryphal Greek writings entitled “Martyrium S. Matthæi in Ponto” and published by Bonnet, “Acta apostolorum apocrypha” (Leipzig, 1898), is absolutely devoid of historic value. Lipsius holds that this “Martyrium S. Matthæi”, which contains traces of Gnosticism, must have been published in the third century. There is a disagreement as to the place of St. Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded. The Roman Martyrology simply says: “S. Matthæi, qui in Æthiopia prædicans martyrium passus est”. Various writings that are now considered apocryphal, have been attributed to St. Matthew. In the “Evangelia apocrypha” (Leipzig, 1876), Tischendorf reproduced a Latin document entitled: “De Ortu beatæ Mariæ et infantia Salvatoris”, supposedly written in Hebrew by St. Matthew the Evangelist, and translated into Latin by Jerome, the priest. It is an abridged adaptation of the “Protoevangelium” of St. James, which was a Greek apocryphal of the second century. This pseudo-Matthew dates from the middle or the end of the sixth century. The Latin Church celebrates the feast of St. Matthew on 21 September, and the Greek Church on 16 November. St. Matthew is represented under the symbol of a winged man, carrying in his hand a lance as a characteristic emblem. (7)

Matthew is the patron of bankers and those who work in financial institutions.

Image: The evangelist Matthew and the angel, artist: Rembrandt, circa: 1661. (11)

Research by REGINA Staff


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