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Monday, September 21st, 2020

‘Vultus quatuor animalium’: a Sermon for the Feast of Saint Matthew

‘As for the appearance of their faces, each had the face of a man . . . Each of them marched straight forward, following the movement of the divine impulse, never swerving as he marched’ (Ezechiel 1, 10 & 12).

Doctrinal fidelity is not sectarianism; that is, we are faithful to the entirety of Catholic doctrine not as a means to distinguish ourselves from other believers, or for any other purely self-interested or human motivation. Rather, doctrinal fidelity has a mystical end. Today’s Mass and today’s saint tell us so.

The epistle of today’s Mass[1] brings us to the first chapter of the prophet Ezechiel:

[I]n the very heart of the fire, was a glow like amber, that enclosed four living figures.

From the beginning, the Fathers have always seen in the four living creatures a prefigurement of the four Gospels. Thus, a veil is pulled back before the prophet, and the first thing he sees is God’s work in Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Observing the behavior of these four living creatures carefully, we note their peculiar way of moving. While they are able to move from place to place—wherever the spirit of God prompts them—they do not turn in order to get there: nec revertebantur cum ambularent. They simply go. This indeed tells us something about the Gospels. Indeed, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, the Church’s apostles, evangelists, and missionaries have carried the Gospel far and wide, unto every country pulpit. Nevertheless, wherever the four Gospels have gone, like the four living creatures, they have not moved; that is, they have not adjusted their orientation or modified their content; they have not turned to become other than what they are. With his mystic sight, the priest Ezechiel has seen this.

St Gregory makes the point even more directly.[2] Each of these four living creatures has a face and a set of wings. In these, St Gregory sees the twofold nature and purpose of the Gospels: faith and contemplation. Because it is by faces that we know and identify who we see; and wings that carry all flying things aloft. Thus, the Gospels give us to know Christ truly; and in knowing him, to rise by contemplation to him.

Catholics do not adhere to their religion simply by force of habit or human preference. What is more, traditionally-minded Catholics are not drawn to the fullness of the faith simply as a way to set themselves apart from others or to feed their self-satisfaction. Rather, the vision of Ezechiel points to the totally supernatural purpose of staying faithful to the whole sacred deposit. When we gaze upon the fiery vision of the four living creatures, we see that fidelity to Catholic doctrine has a mystical purpose and no other.

Beyond this, and in conclusion, the very life of St Matthew tells us all we need to know about the reason for being faithful to the Gospels—namely, divine love. St Matthew, the chaste priest, could easily have compromised on the Gospel he preached; only, he did not. He could easily have toyed with the integrity of the Gospel for the sake of comfort and safety; but this he did not do. Sacred tradition tells us that he was killed by his enemies while he was celebrating Mass: he would not go back on his vow of celibacy which he had long since made to Christ his Master. Love bade him to persevere.

In a word, we keep the faith whole and entire for one reason: it gives us God.

 


[1] Ezechiel 1, 10-14: which is also that of St Mark on 25 April.

[2] Cf the second nocturne of today’s divine office: Super Ezechielem ProphetamHomilia 3, liber 1: ‘Facies itaque ad fidem pertinet, penna ad contemplationem.’

{Art Credit: Guido Reni (1575-1642), St Matthew and the Angel (c 1635-1640); Pinacoteca Vaticana.}

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