The mystery hidden from all ages by Canon Jim Foley

The mystery hidden from all ages by Canon Jim Foley

To view this reflection as a PDF document click here.

A YEAR WITH SAINT MATTHEW

Year A: 2014 / 2017 / 2020 / 2023 / 2026)

Reflections on the Gospel of Saint Matthew

Reflection 1:

The mystery hidden from all ages

When we cross the threshold of a Gothic cathedral on a bright sunny day we can find ourselves stumbling along in the dark. It would probably be wise to sit down for a time till our eyes adjust to the change of light. Gradually we begin to see the shape of things that were previously completely hidden from sight. In time even the darkest corners begin to reveal their secrets.

This is not far removed from the experience of crossing the threshold of the gospel of Saint Matthew after visiting Saint Mark. We need to give ourselves time to become accustomed to the change of atmosphere. Eventually, things previously completely hidden emerge from the shadows, but not all at once. Each successive visit can bring its own revelation. Something new and often quite unexpected can take us by surprise.

The darkness itself takes on a new meaning. It is valued for what it is, part of the mystery that surrounds us in life and, to that extent, is a feature of the Gospel of Matthew that introduces us, in a special way, to the mystery of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Not everything is as clearly defined as Mark might have suggested.

As we approach the Gospel of Saint Matthew we must appreciate the importance of three terms: sign, sacrament and mystery. The idea of a sign is well known and understood. A sign is something that is reasonably obvious to our senses but serves to introduce us to something less obvious or beyond us in some way. The visible words on this page serve to take the reader into the mind of their author. Our streets are lined with road signs that we ignore at our peril. The very expression on our faces can be an effective sign of the mood we are in.

The other two terms, sacrament and mystery are, to a large extent, synonyms for sign. One derives from Latin, the other from Greek. To describe Christ as the sacrament of the love of God is an attempt to point to his identity as the visible revelation, in human form, of the infinite love of God. He is the embodiment of that redeeming love which now reaches mankind in a way we can begin to understand and to which we can respond.

To describe Christ himself in this way is not as new as we might imagine. If a sacrament is the visible and effective sign of the presence of something that is a mystery and not entirely clear to the human mind, then the Christ of the Gospel of Saint Matthew fits this definition well. Every page of his Gospel is charged with an awareness of the fact that there are deeper hidden events and truths unfolding within the scenes and encounters he describes. Matthew takes every opportunity to point us in their direction.

 A visit to Peter’s home at Capernaum

For the moment one such scene may be enough to illustrate Matthew’s purpose. All three synoptic Gospels describe the dramatic scene that took place in the early days of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee on the threshold of Peter’s home at Capernaum. The evangelists describe the scene in almost identical terms: ‘That evening they brought to him many who were possessed by demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick’ (Mt 8.16 Mk 1.32-34 Lk 4.40-41). Matthew, however, adds an observation inspired by Isaiah 53.4:

‘This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah; He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ Mt 8.17.

In other words, Matthew had observed and reported the same event as his fellow evangelists but added his interpretation of the scene as the fulfilment of the Prophecy concerning the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah 53.4. In quoting Isaiah Matthew identifies Jesus with the Servant of the Lord who would sacrifice his life for the well-being of others. From what could be observed on the threshold of Peter’s home, Matthew has led us to the threshold of the divine plan of redemption and the manner of its accomplishment. In Jesus’ ministry of healing Matthew recognised God’s plan that His Son should act out the redemption of mankind in his experience of suffering and death. When Peter opened the front door of his home to the destitute he set a precedent for all future generations of disciples

Fulfilment of a mystery

Matthew’s frequent references to the fulfilment of the Old Testament are not a simple nostalgia for past times. They reflect his concern to interpret the meaning of present events in the light of God’s providential plan for mankind. As an evangelist Matthew faithfully records the events of the life of Jesus no matter how domestic; as a theologian he offers his interpretation of those events. In this, Matthew is not so far removed from Saint Paul. Paul could be describing the Gospel of Matthew when he says to the Ephesians:

He has let us know the mystery of his purpose,

according to his good pleasure

which he determined beforehand in Christ,

for him to act upon when the times had run their course;

that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head,

everything in the heavens and everything on earth. Ephesians 1.9ff.

Matthew’s awareness of this mystery reveals itself in a whole variety of ways as he tries to reach beyond what can be seen and heard, to explore and interpret the life and teaching of Jesus in ways that were evidently beyond the intentions of his fellow evangelist Mark. During the Year of Saint Matthew we will look to his Gospel for inspiration. Other voices will be raised but few will carry us deeper into the mystery of the Redeemer and our redemption.

If we press the image of the Gothic cathedral further we have to admit that the building is not all darkness. From time to time the darkness is dispelled dramatically by the light from the stained-glass windows. Matthew too shines a bright light often in the darkest corners of redemption. The Transfiguration of Jesus, when his garments shone like the sun, is the prelude to the dark prophecy of his forthcoming passion and death. Perhaps the light is all the more brilliant in that it shines in the darkest of places (Mt 17.1-8 and 17.22-23).

The fact that the message in the windows can be seen only from inside might suggest that only those within the community of faith can hope one day to see the whole picture when the mystery of faith and hope give way to the Beatific vision. We suspect that Matthew is already writing for a believing community. Unlike Mark he never accuses his disciples of having ‘no faith’. Their problem is that they are men of ‘little faith’ (contrast Mark 4.40 and Mt 8.26).

Those who wish to enter the great cathedral of this Gospel must first pass under the scrutiny of 42 generations of one family all lined up like a guard of honour. Many of them have been through the wars. Like the figures in the portals of our cathedral they may be missing an ear of a nose or an arm. Many of them are great heroes, others are greater rogues. The expressions on some of their faces suggest they are surprised to find themselves there at all. But there they are, father and son from one generation to the next. Jewish chroniclers loved these names as much for their resonance as for their history. They were like music to their ears. Matthew has raided the archives and called them to attention as a kind of guard of honour for those who wish to cross the threshold of his cathedral.

During the year of Matthew we are invited in. If we expect to encounter angels and saints we might find ourselves surprised by the company we are asked to keep. The astronomers from the East and the Roman Centurion are as much at home in the company of Jesus as are Pythagoras and Aristotle in the company of the Apostles and Saints in our Gothic cathedral. This most Jewish of texts is also the most ecumenical of them all.

It is just possible that Matthew, in the manner of great artists and musicians, has written himself into his composition when he alone of the evangelists remarks: The kingdom of God is like a scribe who knows how to take ‘things new and old’ out of his treasure chest. (Mt 13.52) He himself was such a scribe and those who accept his invitation to read on can expect to discover ‘things new and old’. It is hardly by chance that the first things out of the treasure chest are new (Mt 13.52).

Further reflections to follow…

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