Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast of St. Matthew, also called Levi, who was a tax collector chosen by Jesus to become one of the Twelve Apostles. Matthew, of course, is also the human author of the first gospel, which was written originally in Aramaic (the spoken language of the Jewish people) around the year 43 A.D. Indeed, Matthew preached the Gospel for some years among his own people before sojourning also to other lands, especially to Asiatic Ethiopia to the south of the Caspian Sea (present-day Iran). It is in this place where he received his martyrdom, as the Roman marytrology tells us that September 21 is the feast day “S. Matthæi, qui in Æthiopia prædicans martyrium passus est.”
One of the most famous works of art in the world is Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” located in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. In this poignantly beautiful work, Caravaggio captures the powerful drama of St. Matthew’s conversion, in its simple suddenness. As we are told of Matthew’s conversion in the modest language of his own gospel, Jesus said to him: “Sequere me” (“Follow me”). And the evangelist humbly reports: “Et surgens, secutus est eum” (And arising, he followed him”). We see in Matthew’s own account of his conversion an immediacy that mirrors also the conversions of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, as they “immediately” leave their nets and follow the Lord.
Caravaggio depicts the dynamic of Matthew’s conversion first by his use of light in the painting. The light is coming not through the window – it is not natural light – but from behind Jesus Himself, accompanying His dramatic gesture of calling Matthew to conversion. It is very clear then that the sudden conversion of Matthew is only the result of a special grace, which is enlightening his intellect and strengthening his will to make him ready quickly and joyfully to leave everything and follow Jesus. This efficacious actual grace respects Matthew’s human nature so much that its operation can be reported truthfully in the ordinary plain language of the gospel account. Indeed, to the one following the inspiration it seems the most natural thing to do, and yet it is the most supernatural of actions.
Caravaggio goes further still in his meditation on Matthew’s conversion. In the painting, Jesus’s finger is pointed at Matthew in artistic imitation of the finger of God in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel. By this likeness to the depiction of the creation, Caravaggio is saying that we are seeing something just as new as (and even more marvelous than!) the creation of the father of the human race; we are seeing the re-creation of this man Levi into the Apostle Matthew, by the sovereign creativity of divine grace! As the priest prays during the infusion of water into the wine at the offertory: “Deus, † qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti, et mirabilius reformasti…” Creation is a wonderful gift, indeed, but the re-creation of our race through the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ is yet more marvelous!
We must never forget that this theology of grace applies to you and to me even as it applied to St. Matthew. Our conversion may not be as sudden and our vocation certainly is not as lofty as that of an Apostle, but each of us is called to respond with enlightened intellects and strengthened wills quickly and joyfully in the following of Christ, wherever He may lead. May the great Apostle and Evangelist, St. Matthew, pray for us today, that we may imitate him in preaching the Gospel and in laying down our lives for love of Jesus Christ!
Fr. Joseph Previtali
Assistant Chaplain to the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco