20 September 2010

A Homily for the Apostle Matthew the Evangelist

Over the summer, the principal at the classical school where I am teaching asked if I would be willing to deliver a homily in chapel once every three or four weeks. With the blessing of my spiritual father, I agreed, and a couple of weeks ago I preached for the first time in my life. As it was the day before the Feast of the Apostle Matthew on the Western calendar, the lectionary selection (from the Book of Common Prayer) on which I spoke was Matthew 9:9-13. Here are my notes for the homily, worked up into a readable text:

Feast of St Matthew homily

2 Cor. 4:1-6
Matt. 9:9-13

In verse 9 of today’s Gospel we read, ‘he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.’ Now, when this takes place, St Matthew is ‘at the tax office’, i.e. he’s at work, yet he rises immediately. Why? What would make a man abandon his job to follow someone he doesn’t know?

Well, when I have questions like this while reading the Scriptures, I turn to the Fathers of the Church. They spent years studying the Scriptures and they come up with some pretty inspired answers to such things.

First, I'd look to like at a commentary by Blessed Theophylact, a learned Byzantine who was archbishop of the Bulgarians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and produced a commentary summarising the exegetical wisdom of the Fathers. Bl Theophylact writes, ‘That Matthew is converted by word alone is the work of God.’ In other words, it was God’s grace that inspired him to leave his job and follow Christ. But there’s more: ‘The words, “I am not come to call the righteous” He spoke ironically. That is, “I have not come to call you who consider yourselves to be righteous, but I have come to call sinners. I do this, not so that they remain sinners, but in order for them to repent.”’ [1] In other words, St Matthew was a humble man, he was not one of those who considered themselves to be righteous, and his humility has prepared him for Christ’s call.

Next, I’d like to consider some comments by the Venerable Bede, whom some of you may have learned about in history. He lived in the eighth century, and was a learned Englishman, a monk of Northumbria, and a renowned historian. He is famous for his history of the English Church, but he also wrote many homilies on the Gospels. St Bede writes:

We should not marvel that a publican, upon first [hearing] the Lord’s voice ordering him, left the earthly gains that he cared about. Disregarding his property, he attached himself to the band of followers of one whom he perceived to have no riches. For the Lord himself, who outwardly called him by a word, taught him inwardly with an invisible impulse so that he followed [him]. He poured into his mind the light of spiritual grace, by which he could understand that the one who was calling him from temporal things on earth was capable of giving him incorruptible treasures in heaven. [2]

In connection with St Matthew’s call, St Bede even quotes that peculiar saying of St Paul in Ephesians (5:14): ‘Arise, you who are asleep, and rise from among the dead, and Christ will enlighten you.’ [3] This reference to Christ ‘enlightening’ us is reminiscent of verse four of today’s Epistle: ‘[T]he god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.’ And verse six tells us that God ‘has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’

This reference to ‘the face of Christ’ is important. We may be inclined to read it in a metaphorical sense, as St Paul simply using a figure of speech. But in the Gospel reading which this Epistle accompanies, St Matthew really did see Christ’s face physically, with his own two eyes.

The grace that enlightens, however, that calls people to abandon the things of this world and follow Christ, can be seen at work in very similar ways throughout sacred history:

In Hebrews we read of the Patriarch Abraham, ‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go’ (Heb. 11:8).

In the Life of St Anthony the Great, written by St Athanasius the Great (for whom our ‘Athanasius House’ is named), we read of St Anthony that when he was in Church and heard the Gospel passage, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell everything you possess and give it to the poor and come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven’ (Matt 19:21-2), ‘He immediately went home and sold the possessions he owned.’ [4] The rich young man did not follow, but over 200 years later, St Anthony did.

St Augustine of Hippo (for whom ‘Augustine House’ is named) gives us two examples in his Confessions—one of which he learns from his friend Ponticianus, and one from his own personal experience. First, in a conversation with St Augustine, Ponticianus quotes another friend who abandoned a political career after reading St Anthony’s Life: ‘Now have I broken loose from those our hopes, and am resolved to serve God; and this, from this hour, in this place, I begin upon. If thou likest not to imitate me, oppose not.’ [5]

Later on, St Augustine writes of his own conversion own conversion: ‘For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonitions, as if what was being read was spoken to him: . . . and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee.’ Then, when St Augustine has his own encounter with the Scriptures, he writes, ‘No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away [italics mine].’ [6]

Notice the reference to ‘a light’ being ‘infused’ into the Saint’s heart. Again, this may sound like only a metaphor, but St Augustine reminds us of the illumination mentioned by St Paul and the Venerable Bede as a component of conversion. It is the grace of illumination. This grace inspires and enables what the Fathers call xeniteia, i.e. ‘being a stranger’, or ‘exile’. St John Climacus, who lived at Mt Sinai in the seventh century, wrote about this ‘exile’:

Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence. [7]

This brings us back to St Matthew, for he too lived out this exile. The Scriptures don’t tell us how he ended his life, but the story passed down in the early Church relates that when the Apostles set out to preach the Gospel, St Matthew went eventually to Ethiopia to preach to the African people. There the local ruler sent soldiers to arrest him, but they were blinded by a light shining from his face, just like the Prophet Moses after he descended from Mt Sinai. St Matthew was finally tortured and killed, but we can see from the end of his life that he had carried with him for all those years the light that shone in his heart that day when he first followed Christ. It had continued to shine there, and had become so bright that in the end Christ’s light shone from his face as well. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Bl Theophylact, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Matthew, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1994), pp. 77, 78.

[2] St Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels, Book 1: Advent to Lent, tr. Lawrence T. Martin & David Hurst, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991), pp. 207-8.

[3] St Bede, p. 208.

[4] Carolinne White, tr. & ed., Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 9.

[5] St Augustine, Confessions, tr. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford U, 1992), p. 152.

[6] St Augustine, pp. 161-2.

[7] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore), rev. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 14.

05 September 2010

Kidnapped & Classical Education

Well, dear readers, I’m afraid I must apologise for the rather long hiatus since my last post. I have of course been busy with beginning full-time teaching, [1] but I must admit I was also a bit discouraged by some comments I received last time, as a result of which I have now set Logismoi comments to be moderated. [2] I truly hope that particular reader has moved on, as he is certainly no longer welcome to comment here. I also hope that I may be inclined and have sufficient time to begin posting at least semi-regularly again, though likely not every day. To mark my return, I would like to post a little piece I have written for my school newsletter, which deals with the first book I have assigned my sixth-grade literature class: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

The 6th-grade literature class is beginning a wonderful new year with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure story, Kidnapped. In some ways, an exciting tale like Kidnapped may seem to fit ill into a classical Christian reading list, and Stevenson himself may contribute to this perception in his dedication of the first edition when he writes:

‘This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter evening schoolroom when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near; and honest Alan, who was a grim old fire-eater in his day, has in this new avatar no more desperate purpose than to steal some young gentleman’s attention from his Ovid, carry him awhile into the Highlands and the last century [the 18th], and pack him to bed with some engaging images to mingle with his dreams.’ [3]
At first glance, this statement of purpose confirms our suspicions that Kidnapped is exactly opposite to the sort of book we want in a classical Christian school. Stealing attention from Ovid! We can’t have that, can we?

Or can we? We might recall that C.S. Lewis has called Ovid ‘that cheery old reprobate’ (in The Four Loves), and sure enough, in his preface to the Modern Library edition, Barry Menikoff has noted the irony of Stevenson’s testimony. He observes that Ovid—a prolific writer of erotic poetry, whose Ars amatoria is a satirical treatise on the art of seduction—‘represents a racy and even titillating writing, . . . and the thought of drawing the boy’s attention away from libidinous delights and directing it toward a realistic exploration of Scottish history can hardly be viewed as a treat, and certainly not as a favor.’ [4] Menikoff concludes:

‘In brief, Stevenson is doing precisely the opposite of what he claims: rather than turning his reader away from study and enticing him into the world of pleasure, he is closing the classical pages of pleasure and opening a book with a potentially powerful instructional value.’ [5]
We will discover the specific virtues of Kidnapped over the next few weeks, but this should serve as a reminder that an ancient publication date may usually, but doesn’t always ensure a work of greater morality or educational potential!

[1] I am teaching 3rd- and 4th-grade Latin, and 6th-grade Bible, history, grammar, and literature at a Christian classical school.

[2] I must also apologise to those whose comments have been awaiting moderation for some time. I didn't realise I had to log into Blogger to see the comments, and I hadn't bothered logging in since I changed the setting!

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped, ed. Barry Menikoff (NY: Modern Library, 2001), pp. 5-6.

[4] Barry Menikoff, ‘Editor’s Preface’, Stevenson, p. xxxiii.

[5] Ibid., p. xxxiii.