Poor St. Matthias. Unfortunately, it seems he will forever be known as “the guy who replaced Judas”. My goal this week, however, is to show you that he actually offered quite a bit in service to the Church!
Not a whole lot is known about St. Matthias before he was chosen as an apostle. He was probably one of the seventy-two disciples of Jesus who had been with him from the baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist all the way to the Ascension. It seems pretty clear that he had heard much of the public teaching of Jesus in person, and was familiar with what it meant to be an apostle.
Of course, St. Matthias is known for replacing Judas as the twelfth apostle. In the Acts of the Apostles 1:15-26, he is chosen to assume that ministry and be a coworker of St. Peter. The choice came down to being between him and a certain Joseph, called Barsabas. Both were chosen as candidates because they had accompanied Jesus most of the time, but also because they were superior examples of holiness of life. The choice was drawn by lot, so as to be entrusted to the Holy Spirit, and what do you know, St. Matthias won!
Not much else is known about him, other than from legends and stories. Unfortunately, not too many of these are reliable in his case, as they are sometimes contradictory or far-fetched. Still, some are rather interesting, and probably have a basis in the truth. St. Matthias is said to have begun his preaching in Judea, but as with most of the apostles, he expanded further out. Some traditions suggest that he went to the area called “Ethiopia” (not that one, the other one) in present day Georgia (also not that one, the other one) in the Caucasus region. One story says he was crucified, while another says he preached to the barbarians and cannibals there (yikes!) before travelling to Armenia and dying of old age. Still another tradition holds that he never left Judea, and was stoned to death in Jerusalem before being beheaded. Despite these seemingly contradicting traditions, the Church continues to celebrate St. Matthias as a martyr, and I suppose that’s what matters.
Little remains of the words or writings of St. Matthias, other than some quotations taken from his work by some of the early Church Fathers. One old tradition remains, however, which is to say that the Feast of St. Matthias on May 14 is the luckiest day of the year, because…you know…Matthias was chosen by lot… (those Church Fathers are so witty). So go buy a lottery ticket on May 14 – just remember your 10%!
This week, we’re focusing on St. Stephen, the Protomartyr (first martyr), who, like St. John the Baptist, we know from the New Testament. Everything we hear about his life comes from the Acts of the Apostles.
Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, named in the Acts of the Apostles. At the time, the Christian community was sharing what they had to care for the poor and widowed of their community (much like we do today!), but as the community got larger, it was more difficult for the apostles to take care of everyone. There was dissatisfaction with the distributions of alms, claims of favoritism of Jews over Greeks, and a general lack of organization. The deacons were named to assist in the distribution and in the leadership of the infant Church. Stephan worked with the Greek-speaking Christians, who maybe were less familiar to the predominantly Jewish apostles.
Stephen was chosen as a deacon for good reason. The author of Acts (traditionally St. Luke), speaks very highly of him, claiming that he was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and praising his grace, fortitude, and wisdom.
Obviously, Stephen was a good guy, but as with most good guys, some people didn’t like him. He came into conflict with the Jewish Synagogue of Freedmen, or the Libertines, who were descendents of Jews taken captive to Rome by Pompey the Great in 63 BC. His teachings and fearless proclamation of Jesus was too much for them, and they dragged him to the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish elders.
But these guys clearly didn’t know who they were messing with – Stephen was a great orator! He was able to speak with great authority and logic that was very convincing. In Acts 7, we have his entire speech to the Sanhedrin – or at least the Cliffs Notes version! He defended his faith to the elders, and called them out on their hardness of heart that ultimately had led Jesus to his death. Clearly, the Sanhedrin didn’t like this, and they condemned him to death by stoning. As he was being pelted by hundreds of rocks, he imitated Jesus last words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60)
According to tradition, he was laid to rest north of Jerusalem, but the tomb was lost for a few hundred years. Thankfully, a Palestinian priest named Lucian reportedly had a vision as to the location of Stephen’s tomb. Incidentally, the Church celebrated this dream as a feast day in the liturgical calendar all the way up to the Second Vatican Council! The relics of St. Stephen were moved around the 5th century to a church built in his honor on the site of his martyrdom outside Jerusalem. It was a huge monastery, and at one time, held close to 10,000 monks! It was destroyed in the crusades, but was recently rebuilt and rededicated in 1900.
Stay tuned next week for another saint mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles!