The author of Acts is worried about numbers. Twelve is a very important number. Eleven is not. When Judas defects and soon afterwards dies, the remaining apostles feel a biblical urge to round up. It won’t do to have the formerly Twelve continue very long into history as the limping Eleven—eleven kind of messes up your biblical allusions. So they nominate a couple of men from the wider group of disciples, pray to God to show them which one God prefers for the job, and cast lots. The lots fall to Matthias, and he becomes an apostle. [Acts 1:15-26]
But who is he? The gospels don’t mention him before Jesus was crucified and raised, unless you think, as some ancient commentators did, that he was actually Zacchaeus, or even Nathanael, by another name. And after his elevation to the ranks of the ‘overseers,’ he is never heard from again. There are no remotely reliable later traditions about him either—although if I could choose one of his legends to be true, it would be the one about him preaching to the cannibals in Georgia. (No, not that Georgia.) Although his relics are venerated in the great church of St Matthias in Trier, Germany, most scholars agree they are not his, but maybe, maybe, those of another Matthias, one of the early bishops of Jerusalem. Our Matthias is a holy cipher.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Matthias is haphazardly included (for all grace is, to human eyes, capricious) and subsequently so unknown. It’s instructive to know that among the Twelve there is one who fell into the apostolic role more or less by chance, one who was drafted into the witnessing business by a roll of the dice, one whose name alone is documented and all the rest unremarkable and ignored. It puts the spotlight on the calling itself, not on the personality and exploits of the called.
Which takes some pressure off those of us who believe ourselves also chosen to be witnesses, but who, despite years of trying, have yet to build a church of more than forty members, end world hunger, bring a lasting peace upon the earth, or die a heroic death among cannibals. Maybe St Matthias’ day is a day to be glad that the grace and wonder of the choice of us lies elsewhere. Maybe on St Matthias day it’s enough to celebrate that God chose him. Maybe today we honor not an apostle so much as a choosing. And maybe not a choosing so much as the Chooser.
Matthias’ liturgical commemoration has traditionally fallen on February 24. The Anglicans still commemorate him on this day, but the Catholics have moved him to May 14, nearer to the feast of the Ascension, in order not to have to celebrate an apostle in Lent (too much festivity for a solemn season), and to associate him more closely with his election, which occurred in the few days between the Ascension and Pentecost.
He is, of course, the patron saint of lottery players. Today might be a good day to buy a ticket.
P. S. If Matthias is unheralded, imagine the obscurity of the other guy in the running! If you commemorate Matthias today, take a moment also to remember Joseph, called Barsabbas [aka Justus], disciple of Jesus and loser.