Every Sunday as we prepare for Mass, the clergy with whom I am privileged to serve carefully lay out the liturgical implements. Our deacon sets the Altar Book and lays it open for the celebrant to check. He then takes out the Gospel Book, ensures the ribbon is set to the correct page, closes it, and sets it aside to carry in the procession.
On the front cover of the chrome-plated Gospel Book are reliefs that can go unnoticed in the midst of a crowded pre-Mass to-do list. They are four creatures symbolizing the four canonical Gospels: a winged-man or angel for Matthew, a winged-lion for Mark, a winged-ox for Luke, and an eagle for John. I must admit that for years I never really considered the significance of these creatures until I had to begin searching for compelling images of St. Matthew, Jesus’ apostle.
The four creatures that represent the Gospels are taken directly from John’s “Revelation.” To John, the so-called “Four Living Creatures” are the chief worshipers in the Heavenly Liturgy, calling the holy community to worship God who reigns victoriously over a redeemed creation. The winged-man comes to highlight the importance of the Incarnation of Christ as evidenced by Matthew’s detailed genealogy.
Family mattered for Matthew, and placing the fullness of God in the middle of complex human family dynamics added a necessary wrinkle to God’s salvation story. God doesn’t simply parachute into human problems; God inherited them and lived them in the same ways we do.
In other words: Jesus knows all about our troubles.
It is highly unlikely that the Apostle named Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, and in some ways this is of no consequence. What matters is that the early church attributed this book to the man Jesus found collecting taxes and invited him to follow. In other words: Jesus went to the margins of Jewish society, found Levi, and called him higher. The first place he went with Jesus was to his own home where they raised the alarm of the religious elite by throwing a dinner party with sinners. Jesus responds to their concern by stating that he came specifically for those on the margins. For early Christians, a close encounter of the Christ kind had the potential to restore heavenward-destiny.
Connecting Matthew the disciple-turned-apostle to the winged-man in “Revelation to John” enshrines this ministry in stone – or chrome. Every time we hear the Gospel, we are called to hear it from the humility of a sinner redeemed and with the abiding hope of a person seen by God to possess limitless potential despite present circumstances.
Celebrating the Feast of St. Matthew is the celebration of the lengths that Christ comes to find each of us and the heights to which we are capable of soaring in the knowledge and love of God. His feast is a direct connection between our brokenness and Heaven’s wholeness. His day is a testimony that everyone, no matter how far gone we think they are, is capable of much more than we can conceive.
So what can our practice be today? How about a commitment to relating to people from the hopeful place of their possibilities and extending that same grace to ourselves? So often we see one another through the fractured lens of human brokenness. How might our world be different if we saw angels, God’s holy messengers, all around us? It’s hard, particularly in a world where we are conditioned to see opponents and adversaries where God is calling us to see friend and neighbor.
Whenever you encounter someone with whom you struggle to relate well, take a breath and try to see them through Heaven’s eyes. See them as Jesus saw Matthew, not as a tax collector, but as one who could take up his own cross and follow him from faith to faith and glory to glory.
The Gospel gives us wings. We spend our whole lives trying to fly. And whenever we fall, we are reminded that, in the words of Mr. Mister’s 1985 Rock classic, “we can take these broken wings and learn to fly again.”
And again… and again…
A Prayer for Today
We thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of your Son our Savior; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[Image credit: By Baylor98 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]
How does the way Jesus saw Matthew help you to realize how He sees you?
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