Friday, February 24, 2017
When a lot falls upon you
Today we mark the feast of St Matthias. This man was the first bishop to be consecrated after the Ascension of Our Lord. His feast day therefore marks the beginning of Holy Orders as a sacrament and thus the beginning of the Apostolic Succession of Bishops.
We read that "the lot fell upon Matthias". Of course, by this we understand that Matthias was chosen from acceptable candidates by lot. He was not chosen for political means, nor for a particular movement within the Church, but rather because he had walked with the other apostles from the time that Our Lord was baptised by John, and was thus a witness to the Lord's ministry. And that's it! Matthias is mentioned only twice in Holy Scripture, both times in the first Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Then silence.
This is actually significant: it demonstrates the importance of generating bishops with the same authority that Our Lord gave to His original disciples. If St Matthias were to be a figure of Biblical proportion like St Paul, then greater mention of it would be made. Yet, St Luke includes this passage to show that this ministry of mission, teaching, and sacrament must propagate into the future for as long as humanity exists and seeks God.
Yet, if this first chapter is to be believed, Judas himself was a bishop in the same way that the other Disciples were. Why else would St Peter refer to Psalm cix.7 which in the Latin says, "fiant dies eius pauci et episcopatum eius accipiat alter" and is translated by Coverdale as, "Let his days be few and let another take his office". This son of perdition is a bishop which is truly significant as to the fate of any whose lives betray Our Lord.
Time and again will the Church see bishops who will disregard their true vocation. History is littered with bishops as fat grotesques seeking to hold political power through the governance of the souls of humble men and women. This type of medieval prince rejoices in his purple, his golden mitre, his sumptuous attire, his feasts, and his entitlement to be invited to the best feasts! One might look to Pope Alexander VI - Rodrigo Borgia - is regarded as an archetype of Papal corruption, yet his successor Pope Julius II is just as scheming and politically motivated. Do they walk with Jesus? It's hard to see how, yet they are products of their time! Do they share in the ultimate fate of Judas? We may not judge, and God is merciful to those who repent.
However, the pun is true. "The lot fell upon Matthias". The lot falls upon each person whom God calls to be a bishop, and it is a lot! Were it not for St Matthias and his episcopal brethren, there would not be a Catholic Church. Our Lord is its chief cornerstone, but the Apostles and their successors have contributed to the foundations of the Church by ministering to the Christians at the coal-face. The Bishop is not to be a commander, one puffed up with his idea of self-importance which he forces upon the clergy through Canon Law and Episcopal Mandate. He is to be an example of humility, laying aside the purple robes of state, and adopting the dirty shift of labour for the vineyard of Christ. It is his walking with Christ that will gather others around him in the same walk, every step bowed with the weight of his responsibility to those who do gather.
If tradition is correct, St Matthias founded the Church of Cappadocia. If this is true, then it is his "Bishoprick" that gave rise to the Cappadocian Fathers, St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Gregory Nazianzus, all of whom became bishops in the fourth century and defended the Christian Faith and still inspire Christians today with their writings of such depth and spirituality which draw the soul to God. Their writings form a roadmap of their walk with God and, through the Nicene Creed, accompany us back to the Holy Trinity.
Thankfully, the days of feudalism are gone. The political authority of bishops is much less, save only in Churches where secular politics has a foothold. These days, a bishop must have an extraordinary quality whereby people see in his character, his work, his action, the love, and especially, the sacramental grace of God in his hands. He must bear the weight of that grace, that he has authority to bestow the Holy Ghost as well as to forgive and bring through the veil the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and he will be held into account for all of these. His teaching will be scrutinised and every error will be accounted to him.
Who on earth would desire such an office? Only those who in ignorance believe it to be the pathway to power and entitlement, and who will thus face a terrible fate in the wrath of God to come. Or those whom God calls and who meekly allow their backs to be bowed under the cross of Christ that they might walk with Him. A bishop should indeed be venerated by Christians, for thereby they venerate Christ Himself and receive blessings from Him regardless of the character of the bishop. As a priest, though with the fullness of God's ordination, every Bishop is an ikon of Christ and thus must be treated accordingly. However, woe betide that bishop who thinks himself worthy of the veneration of the faithful!
Yet the office of a Bishop is a good thing to desire, for by it we are connected inescapably to Our Lord through the chains of the Apostolic Succession. To agree to God to bear our part in supporting our bishops, we are helping to attach the lives of all Christians buffeted about upon the turbulent and fearsome sea of this World to the Rock that is Christ Himself, anchoring us all to safety and to salvation. In the Episcopacy, we see the promises of God assured and, by gathering around our bishops, we can find comfort in that assurance.
On this day, may the merits of St Matthias be of great encouragement to all bishops, and with his prayers and ours, may all the bishops of God be blessed, may their hard work be lightened by the smile on Our Lord's face when he says "well done, good and faithful servant", and may the riches of God's grace which they bear at their hands be a source of their humble fulfillment. At the last, may the life of every bishop, purified by God's Holiness, shine to guide the lost back to their Creator.