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"As I was saying ... ." That, more or less, is how St. Athanasius began his homily each time he returned from exile. Over 17 years, he was banished five times by four Roman emperors for reasons political and theological, but he persisted in defying the heresy of the powerful Arians who had a flawed idea of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. The persistence of Athanasius in the face of discouragement is honored by his inclusion along with Ambrose, Augustine and John Chrysostom in Bernini's Altar of the Chair in Saint Peter's Basilica.
Persistence against the odds shows the strength of humility, whereas its opposite, vainglory, is easily discouraged in difficult times. Athanasius, whose feast was recently celebrated, comes to mind in preparation for the feast this coming Thursday of the persistent Matthias. He is sometimes confused with Matthew the tax collector, one of the original 12 Apostles. But Matthias was very much his own man, and even though he gets no mention in the gospel texts, the book of the Acts of the Apostles records that he was one of the 70 disciples appointed by Christ, and was a witness to the Resurrection.
After the Ascension but before Pentecost, Peter summoned his fellow Apostles to choose a man to fill the moral cavity left by the suicide of Judas. There was no precedent for this, so Matthias was nominated along with another early companion of Christ, Joseph Barsabbas, a reliable man, and in fact, he was called Justus for that reason.
As the soldiers had cast lots to see who would own Christ's tunic, that disgrace was atoned for by the Apostles casting lots, the equivalent of shooting dice, to choose one of the two. Matthias was the winner, if you consider a virtual assurance of martyrdom something devoutly to be wished.
According to one tradition, Barsabbas became the holy bishop of Eleutheropolis, near modern Hebron. Matthias went on to preach the gospel in Judea, and probably Turkey and Ethiopia as well, finally shedding his blood for the Savior, perhaps in Jerusalem.
Matthias left no extant writings, but his humble persistence is testimony to John Bunyan's hymn:
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
Although there is no evidence that Matthias was an addict of any sort, because of his persistence he is the patron saint of alcoholics and others contending against various sorts of compulsive behavior. Early in the 18th century, the essayist Joseph Addison wrote: "If you wish to succeed in life, make perseverance your bosom friend, experience your wise counselor, caution your elder brother and hope your guardian genius."
That is sound domestic advice and can invoke the examples of the virtuous of any age. The saints like Matthias and Athanasius take it to heights heroic with the results promised by the Risen Christ.
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