Matthew the Apostle

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This past weekend we celebrate the feast of one the apostles and gospel writers, Matthew also known as Levi. He is one of the original twelve disciples. We find his calling in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”  He was a tax collector from Capernaum who was named among the Twelve (Matt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15 and Acts 1:13). He is called Levi, son of Alpheus (Mk. 2:14 and Lk. 5:27). He was a 1st century Galilean and he had been a tax collector for the Romans during the reign of Herod Antipas, a profession hated and detested by Jews and Gentiles alike and the basis for his patronage of banker and accountants. His tax office was located in Capernaum. Jews who became rich in such a way were despised and considered outcasts. The Jews would also have considered Matthew and his colleagues as traitors, since collecting taxes entailed cooperation with their Roman occupiers. But as a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek.

It was in this setting, near what is now Almagor, that Jesus called him. After being called, Matthew invited him home for a feast. Upon seeing this, the scribes and Pharisees were indignant and criticized Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners. Dining with someone was serious business in the first century. But upon seeing this, Jesus answered them, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17). 

Matthew was one of the witnesses of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. After the ascension, he was with the disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 1:10-14) and was there at Pentecost. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria hold that Matthew preached the gospel to the Jewish communities in Judea before going to other countries. But ancient writers disagree as to what countries those are. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Ethiopia or Persia. 

The precise date of the writing of Matthew’s gospel is unknown. In light of Irenaeus’ assertion (c. A.D. 175) that Matthew composed his gospel while Peter and Paul were still living, it is traditionally dated to the late 50s or early 60s. 

 

Church as Mother: Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)

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Bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer. He was born around the year 200 in North Africa near Carthage. His father was a noble and a wealthy Roman officer of high rank who gave his son a good Greek education. Cyprian himself became a leading member of a legal fraternity in Carthage. He was an orator, “pleader in the courts,” and a teacher of rhetoric. He was well into middle age when he converted to Christianity and was baptized. The exact date of his conversion is unknown. But after his baptism, around 245-248, he gave a portion of his wealth away to the poor in Carthage, as befitted a man of his status.

After his conversion, he devoted himself to ascetic retirement and to the study of the scriptures and great men of the church, especially Tertullian, whom he highly admired. Soon after his conversion he became a deacon. In or around 248 or 249, after he had been a believer for a year, the church at Carthage made him a presbyter. The following year they prevailed upon him to fill the vacant position of bishop. This placed Cyprian as the head of the North African clergy. This was a popular choice among the poor but was opposed among a portion of the presbytery. Moreover, this opposition did not dissolve during his episcopacy. He administered his office with skill, wisdom and fidelity. 

Soon, the church community was put to a test. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for years and the church was assured and lax. Early in 250, the Decian persecution began. Measures were taken demanding that the bishops and church officers sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul went on circuit to administer the edict. But when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled in order to escape seizure. Under the onslaught of this persecution, many lapsed and denied the faith. Cyprian urged them to constancy. He continued in his office while in seclusion, writing to his presbyters, deacons and laymen, encouraging them to be faithful and true. He assured them that he would return as soon as God showed him it was his will. 

The church community was divided between those who persisted in civil disobedience and those who buckled and submitted to the civil authorities and received a ticket called a “libellus.” Cyprian’s secret departure was regarded by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity and they wasted no time accusing him at Rome. The Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian defended his decision stating that he fled in accordance with visions and divine command. 

The persecution was especially severe at Carthage, according to church sources. Many fell away and were referred to as “lapsi” but afterwards asked to be received again into the church. Their requests were granted early with no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and the faithful at Carthage who insisted upon earnest repentance. Indeed, when dealing with the lapsed, Cyprian was rigid, demanding confession and unmistakable evidence of penitence. But the confessors among the more liberal group intervened to allow hundreds of the lapsed to return to the church. Cyprian returned to Carthage in 251, after the persecution was over, having been in retirement for two whole years. He defended leaving his post in letters to other North African bishops and a tract “De lapsis,” and called a council at Carthage to deal with the issue of the lapsed. It was decided that pardon could be granted to the lapsed, but only after a proper period of penitence. 

During this time, Cyprian rose in favor with the people when they saw his self-denying devotion during a time of great plague and famine. He comforted his brethren in his writing exhorting them to active charity toward the poor, while he himself set the best pattern for his own life. He also defended Christianity against the reproach of the heathen who said that Christians were the cause of public calamities. 

In 256, yet another round of persecution of the church under the emperor Valerian. Cyprian courageously prepared his people and set an example himself when he was brought before the Roman proconsul on August 30, 257. He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Jesus Christ. He was banished to Curubis (modern day Korba) and there he comforted his flock the best he could. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. After a year he was recalled and was put under house arrest in his own villa. Soon a more stringent imperial edict arrived, demanding the execution of all Christian clerics, according to the reports of Christian writers at the time. 

On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned and the following day was examined for the final time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God!” The execution was carried out immediately in an open place near the city. A crowd followed him on his final trip. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself he was beheaded by the sword. 

The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution and over it, along with the site of execution, were churches built. But they were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones removed to France. 

Cyprian wrote a number of epistles and tracts. The most important being “De unitate ecclesiae.” In it he writes, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother…he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” and “nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.” He also declared that the unity of the church rested in the episcopate, making the bishops the representatives of the apostles, thus making the chair of St. Peter the center of episcopal unity. He gave Peter a primacy of honor in the church. 

His first writing starts out as a speech he made to his friends. It’s called “Ad Donatum.” It speaks out against the Roman government and gladiator shows. St. Cyprian remarks that the only refuge from these evils is the prayerful life of a Christian. He was the first great Latin writer in the Church. Until Jerome and Augustine, his writings had no rivals in the West. 

His feast day in the Anglican Communion is September 13. In the Catholic Church, it is September 16. 

 

Saint Stephen: Deacon & Protomartyr

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Stephen the Deacon was a Greek-speaking Jew and the first Christian martyr. The circumstances of his conversion are unknown, but his death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He was an early deacon in the church at Jerusalem who aroused the anger of the Jews by his preaching. Having been accused of blasphemy, he made a long speech at his trial denouncing the Jewish authorities who were pronouncing judgment on him and had him stoned to death. His death was witnessed and approved of by Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) who was holding the cloaks of those who were throwing the stones. Saul would later become the greatest convert to the Christian faith and one of the greatest missionaries in church history.

He is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches. Stephen is derived from the Greek meaning “crown.” Traditionally, he is invested with a martyr’s crown and is often depicted in art with three stones and a martyr’s palm. In the Eastern church, he is often seen as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing deacon’s vestments and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

Stephen is first mentioned in the book of the Acts as one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to the Hellenistic widows and poorer members if the community (Acts 6:5). Another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, was born Jewish and so it could be assumed that Stephen was also born Jewish. Yet nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for this appointment was that the Greek Jews felt that their widows were being ignored for the Hebraic ones. Since Stephen is a Greek name, it can be assumed he is one of those Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles. It was among the Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and miracles since it was said that he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia.” Members of these synagogues challenged his teachings. But inspired by the Spirit, Stephen bested them in the debates. Having been humiliated, they brought about false witnesses who charged him with blasphemy and dragged him before the Sanhedrin, the legal court of the Jewish elders. They accused him of preaching against Moses and the Temple. Stephen did not get angry despite all of the false charges, but was said to have had “the face of an angel.”

Stephen’s speech, which takes up almost all of chapter 7, is the longest in Acts. In it, Stephen presents the history of Israel. The God of glory appeared to Abraham, thus establishing his first main theme that God does not dwell in one particular building (i.e. the Temple). He recounts the story of the patriarchs in some depth and the history of Moses. Despite all that God did for his undeserving people, Israel turned to other gods. This disobedience was Stephen’s second theme.  Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of changing Jewish customs. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to show that the Mosaic law was not subverted by Jesus but instead were fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people, who just as their ancestors, resisted the Holy Spirit.

The crowd could no longer contain their anger. Stephen, though, looked up and cried out “Look! I see heaven open up and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that Jesus was standing on God’s right hand was such intense blasphemy they covered their ears so as not to hear it. They rushed toward Stephen, drove him outside the city to the appointed place and stoned him. Jewish law permitted death by stoning as punishment for blasphemy. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down in order to do this at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul. Stephen, full of compassion, prayed to God to receive his spirit and to forgive his executors. He then fell to his knees and died. Saul approved of his execution.

Acts 8 reports his burial, but the location is unknown. In 415, a priest named Lucian had a dream that supposedly revealed the location of the saint’s remains. The reputed relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.

In the West, the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated on December 26 and is mentioned in the English Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a public holiday in many nations. In Eastern Christianity, it is celebrated on December 27 and is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity.” In the Oriental Orthodox church (Syrian, Indian) it is on January 8.

Many churches and other places commemorate St. Stephen. There is St. Etienne in Paris and in other places in the French speaking world. In Vienna, there is Stephansdom (Cathedral of St. Stephen) founded in 1147 and the seat of the cardinal archbishop of Vienna. It is the symbol of the city of Vienna and of Austria, has the country’s tallest spire and is the country’s most famous church. In the old city of Jerusalem, the “Lion’s gate” is also known as “St. Stephen’s Gate” after the tradition that his stoning occurred here, though it was most likely at the Damascus Gate. In the great city of London, St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III of England. It was the first site of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. St. Stephen’s Clock Tower was the original name for the tower that housed Big Ben until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.