On Celebrating Matthias

When I got up this morning and checked my Twitter feed it was clogged by all manner of English Anglican folks saying nice things about St Matthias. This is a Pond Difference that is worth mentioning as it gets into one of the interesting anomalies you discover as you dig into the kalendar.

The Episcopal Church celebrates St Matthias on February 24. The proper day… Now, if you’re a liturgy geek, you’ll recognize this particular feast because it falls on the old Latin bisextile day—leap day for Romans. This could be shifted to the 25th depending what year you were in. Furthermore, it is right around the same time as Ash Wednesday and, potentially, Lent 1 and often falls during Lent. As a result, there are all sorts of potential discussions about precedence rules when these things start coinciding and learnéd discussions of ancient authorities can be had.

Around Vatican II, the Roman Church decided that it was tired of these discussions and moved Matthias out of this liturgical “danger zone” and out into the late Spring where the only thing it can conflict with is Ascension Day. And Easter Sundays. And Pentecost. Great thinking, Romans! The Church of England followed suit and accommodated to the new date. (A similar thing happened to St Thomas as well.)

We didn’t. We kept the old date.

So—when we say “old date,” what precisely do we mean…?


Well, here’s a little snippet from the Sacramentary of Rodrade written in 853 that shows the feast of Matthias on February 24. (The 6th day before the kalends of March).

Now—here’s what’s weird: this particular snippet comes from the verso (back side) of the first folio. That also contains a mass for St Mark (April 25th) right under it. On the front side of the page it has masses for Emerentiana, Macharius and Companions (Jan 23rd) and St Praejectus with memorials of the Conversion of St Paul (January 25th) in a different hand. In other words, this page is a later addition into the mass book; it didn’t come with Matthias in it!

Indeed, when we take a look at where he ought to fall (and note the really different handwriting here as opposed to above), we see a great big gap between Valentine (Feb 14th—but you knew that…) and Gregory (March 12th):

NoMatthias Thus, we have one of our earliest and best examples of the Gregorian Sacramentary lacking the feast of St Matthias; it gets added in later. So, too, does the Conversion of Paul which takes second fiddle to St Praejectus, himself a late addition.

What’s going on here?

Remember that kalendars were originally all about the local… When we look at the very earliest Roman kalendars the majority of the names found there are from saints in the area. There are a few famous names from North Africa, but Frere sums up the evidence this way in his classic Studies in Early Roman Liturgy: I. The Kalendar:

“Apart from such outstanding cases [Holy Innocents, Timothy, Cyprian, Perpetua and Felicitas], an entry is normally made in the Roman Kalendar because there is a place which demands an anniversary.” (25)

“Indeed, we may watch the Kalendar grow, as new churches arise in the city, and claim an anniversary.” (26)

[After a discussion of the suburban cemeteries/catacombs and the uncertain addition of saints who lay 7 miles or more outside of Rome]”It is evident that topological considerations have been the determining feature of the Kalendar.

The saints of Porto (19 miles) and Ostia (15 miles) are too far off to be taken into account, though they may figure in the early records under the heading Romae. Six or seven miles is the limit, and that proves in practice to be too far. So the suburban cemeteries supply names to the Kalendar mainly from an inner ring within a radius of about four miles.” (28)

“The occurrence of such notes [place names with reference to the saints/martyrs] in the Service-books corroborates the view expressed above, that the shrines in the cemeteries have given rise to the observance of these anniversaries.

At a later stage the outlook changes. The Kalendar is regarded less as a direction where the official Mass will be said, and more as a direction given to a priest serving a church to tell him what Mass he will say there on a certain day [when]. It is not clear by what stages the official Mass at the cemetery was given up. But the main cause is clear enough, viz. the destruction of the Catacombs and cemeteries. And the effect is clear also, viz. that the Curia’s directory became the parish priest’s Kalendar.” (29, emphasis added)

Thus, if you want to be on the earliest Western kalendars, you darn well better be buried within 4 miles of the center of Rome! (St Valentine, for instance, was right out the Via Flamina and therefore in a well-situated but less prestigious spot than those like Callistus, Fabian, and other early pope-martyrs buried in the Callisti or Praetextati cemetaries right off the Via Appia.)

As Frere indicated, in time, this local Roman kalendar based on how far the pope and his entourage were able/willing to walk became the kalendar for the average parish priest in the Roman area. Then, as things spread, it became the default kalendar for wherever “Roman” books went! It was not until the 8th century in Norther Europe that bishops and others decided that it might not be a bad idea to round out the kalendar and to make sure that all of the apostles and evangelists were on it—not just those who had been martyred around Rome. Thus, it’s from this point that we start seeing certain New Testament saints making their way into the kalendars and mass-books; some faster than others.

So, too, it is in this early medieval period that we should look for an explanation as to the odd occurrence of so many of these days on or around the 24th or 25th of the various months… Staley in his Liturgical Year supposes that this was somehow in connection to the dates of Christmas and the Annunciation, but it remains a mystery to me.

Thus, Matthias does get a celebration as one of the universalizing tendencies of the Carolingian liturgical consolidation. You don’t find feasts for him early. Then, in these latter days, some of these apostles have suffered the further indignity of being switched around because the early medieval dates are now less convenient. Hence, the English doing Matthias today (May 14th) whom we’ve already honored earlier in the year (February 24th).

4 thoughts on “On Celebrating Matthias

  1. Caelius Spinator

    Thank you, Derek, for solving one of the smaller mysteries of the morning. Oddly enough, today is the Orthodox feast of St. Carthage of Lismore (Mo Chutu mac Fínaill), who is commemorated by both Roman Catholics (tomorrow) and the Orthodox but was probably kicked out of his first monastery for preferring the Roman date of Easter.

  2. Fr. Aaron Orear

    I prefer this date for Matthias because it is possible, as happened today, that his feast lands after the Ascension and before Pentecost…which, in the scriptural time line, was when he was chosen and included in the company of the apostles. Of course, Easter roams and so poor Matthias can certainly get left to one side or the other of the narrative flow, but it does happen and when it does it’s lovely.

  3. Derek Olsen

    Ah, yes, good ol’ Carthaighi-i-Mochutta Lismoir. He’s the first entry for today in the Martyrology of Tallaght (ca. 788).

    I had to check Feb 24th and it only has Cuimini find mac Fiachna, Mic Feradaigh abb. Iae., and Ciaran h-mesa I. Aird fola. Now, I do not claim to read Old Irish, but none of these looks anything like Matthias. Again–kalendars were local! (Although I will note the presence of Cutbricti Saxonis (i. Inse Mennoc) [Cuthbert of Lindisfarne] on March 20th.) Skimming through it, I don’t see any apostolic saints, although that also might be an artifact due to the Victorian editor. I’ll have to dig deeper on that one.

  4. Caelius Spinator

    Oengus the Culdee, alleged co-author of the Martyrology of Tallaght, indicates in his Festology that Matthias (Madian in Old Irish) should be celebrated on VII ante Kalendem Martii (Feb. 23rd). I wonder if that’s some sort of bisextile error. The medieval glosses on the Festology mention the bisextile day on the 24th, but Oengus pays it no mind himself.

    The 1857 Edition of the Martyrology of Tallaght by Matthew Kelly mentions that there are no non-Irish feasts with the exception of a couple of Saxons and the visitation by Mary to Elizabeth, so I wouldn’t blame your Victorian editor. Oengus seems to have been more wide-ranging in his selections but perhaps less thorough, because he’s writing a Christian version of Ovid’s Fasti. (Surely, that’s not an idea original to him?)

    Kalendars were local. They still are. Note, for instance, that even the Diocese of Rome has its own proper kalendar: http://friarminor.blogspot.com/2013/04/proper-calendar-of-diocese-of-rome.html

Comments are closed.