St Matthew, Apostle of Ethiopia, 21st September
Jesus called Levi, the tax-gatherer, to be an apostle. The son of Alpheus (Mark 2:14) was a Galilean, although Eusebius tells us that he was a Syrian. As tax-gatherer at Capharnaum, he collected custom duties for Herod Antipas, and although a Jew, he was despised by the Pharisees.
Luke 5: 27-29 ....He went forth, and saw a publican named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom, and he said to him: Follow me. And leaving all things, he rose up and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house; and there was a great company of publicans, and of others, that were at table with them. This drew forth a protest from the Pharisees whom Jesus rebuked thus: "I came not to call the just, but sinners".
As a disciple and an apostle he thenceforth followed Christ, accompanying Him up to the time of His Passion and, in Galilee, was one of the witnesses of His Resurrection. He was also present at the Ascension, and afterwards withdrew to an upper chamber, in Jerusalem, praying in union with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with his brethren (Acts 1:10, 1:14).
Of Matthew's subsequent career we have only legendary data. St. Irenæus tells us that Matthew preached the Gospel among the Hebrews, (St. Clement of Alexandria says for 15 years) and Eusebius maintains that, before going into other countries, he gave them his Gospel in the mother tongue.
Ancient writers do not agree as to the countries Matthew evangelized, but almost all mention Ethiopia. According to the Golden Legend: The Apostle Matthew evangelized Ethiopia, where he disclosed as agents of the Devil the various magicians who misled the King and the people. He resurrected the son of the King, and the people wanted to adore him as a god. But St. Matthew did not permit it and used the gold and silver they brought in his homage to build a great church. He resided there under the protection of the sovereign for 33 years. The king’s daughter, St. Ephigenia [her feast day is also today], consecrated herself to God and founded a convent of over 200 virgins.
The King’s successor, Hirtacus, wanted to marry Ephigenia considering her the only woman worthy of him. He asked St. Matthew to convince the Princess to marry and promised him half of his kingdom if he should succeed. The Apostle told him to come to church on Sunday, and that there he would find a response to his request. The King hastened to comply, thinking that the Apostle would persuade Ephigenia to marry him. With the virgins and whole populace present, St. Matthew preached at great length on the excellence of the sacrament of marriage.
Hirtacus was pleased believing that the sermon would make Ephigenia consent to marriage with him. However, at a certain moment, St. Matthew said:
"Since marriage is good as long as the union is kept inviolate, all of you here present know that if a servant dared to usurp the king’s spouse, he would deserve not only the king’s anger, but death as a penalty."
Then he turned to the king and addressed him:
“So it is with you, O King! You know that Ephigenia has become the spouse of the Eternal King and is consecrated with the sacred veil. How can you take the spouse of One who is more powerful than you and make her your wife?”
Filled with rage and hatred, the King left the church, and ordered a swordsman to kill St. Matthew. Finding him standing before the altar with his hands raised to Heaven in prayer, he stabbed the Apostle in the back, killing him and making him a martyr.
The indignant people ran to the royal palace to take revenge for that crime, but the priests restrained them and advised them to follow the funeral of the Saint instead. Hirtacus then had a huge fire ignited around the convent of St. Ephigenia to kill her and the virgins. But St. Matthew appeared to them and turned the fire away from the convent and towards the royal palace, which was completely consumed along with all in it. Only the King and his son managed to escape.
The Prince immediately ran to the tomb of St. Matthew confessing his father’s crimes and asking forgiveness. The King was stricken with a loathsome leprosy and took his life with his own sword. The people chose as king the brother of Ephigenia. He reigned for 70 years spreading the cult of Christ and building churches throughout Ethiopia.