A Sermon for
the Feast of
"The Calling of Saint Matthew"
By Dr. Robert Crouse
"And they went every one straight forward; whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went"
Ezekiel 1:12The text comes from the Prophet Ezekiel's vision of the four living creatures, from which the ancient service books, both East and West, took the Epistle lection for this festival.
The Church Fathers saw in Ezekiel's vision a representation of the four Evangelists. "As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps...and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightening...And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great water, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech." "As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle." Those four faces thus became the conventional symbols of the four Evangelists. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: the man, the lion, the ox and the eagle.
"And they went every one straight forward: which the spirit was to go, they went, and they turned not when they went." That is precisely the spirit of the calling of Matthew: "Jesus saw a man named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him." There it is - that's all there is to it, not another word! It's simple, direct and straightforward.
Our 16th century Reformers, perhaps anticipating the needs of an unimaginative age, took away Ezekiel's vision, and gave us a new Epistle lesson from II Corinthians. No doubt they did wisely. So far have we lost the sense of the ancient poetry, that it is now commonly supposed that Ezekiel's vision was either a pathological hallucination, or else a garbled account of a landing from outer-space.
In the lesson from St. Paul, the meaning of the vision is indeed made more explicit. The burning coals of Ezekiel, the bright fire, the lamps and the lightening, have all come into focus; the iamges have coalesced: it is "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." And that vision is what vocation is all about.
The finest representation I know of the calling of Matthew is Caravaggio's great painting in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. Five men are gathered around a table in the customs house, all elegantly dressed in silks and velvets, with plumes in their hats, earnestly engaged in counting coins. There is a window in the wall, high above the table, but there is no light from that source. The table is in deep shadow - this is a place of "craftiness and hidden things of dishonesty."
But the scene is interrupted by a ray of light from some unseen source, and by the appearance of Christ, with a rather unkempt St. Peter, both barefoot and clad in rough garments. The arm of Christ is outstretched, point a finger at Matthew. Two men at the table remain completely engrossed in their counting; two others have turned to look at the intruders, and wear expressions of disdainful incomprehension.
But Matthew, his hand just in that moment drawn back from the coins, is arrested by the luminous countenance of Christ. He alone has discerned "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." That is his conversion and his calling.
One might appropriate to that arrested figure of Matthew what Dante says in his own vision of glory, in the Paradiso:And so my mind, dedazzled and amazed/We wayfarers can look upon God's glory, as Ezekiel did, only through earthly images. As Aristotle observes, just as the eyes of bats are blind to the light of the sun, so are the eyes of our minds blind to what is, in its own nature, supremely intelligible. We see through images, and often they are obscure. "We see through a glass darkly", says St. Paul: reflections in a cloudy mirror.
Stood fixed in wonder, motionless, intent./
And still my wonder kindled as I gazed.
That light doth so transform a man's whole bent/
That never to another sight or thought/
Would he surrender with his own consent;/
For everything the will has ever sought/
Is gathered there, and there is every quest/
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.
But the clue and the key to all the images is "the face of Jesus Christ", the sacred humanity of the Incarnate Lord, who is "the brightness of the Father's glory, and the express image of his person." "We beheld his glory", says St. John, "the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." That one image makes all the others clear.
The mission of the Church is to call us out of darkness; by word and sacrament to set before our eyes the vision of God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ. That is at the heart of liturgy, and all the Christian arts; the light of pure, transcendent glory must shine through, and that is essential to all our intellectual and moral and ascetical disciplines, too. Without that vision, all else so easily falls into deceit and craftiness; or perhaps, at best, narrowness of spirit, or just pedestrian nonsense. But even pedestrian nonsense, you know, if that's all there is, is a pretty nasty form of hell.
May we, along with Matthew - rejoicing in his fellowship, and aided by his prayers - be granted grace, that in this liturgy, and in all the images of earthly life, we may glimpse the face of Jesus Christ; and then, beyond all earthly images, "beheld with open face" that everlasting glory. That is, after all, our calling.
"And they went every one straight forward: whither the Spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went." May it be so with us. Amen. +
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