St Matthias had a strange and uniquely grave responsibility placed on his shoulders: to replace Judas Iscariot.
This is one of the only things we know about Matthias. There are a number of oral traditions that say he travelled on mission to Ethiopia but the accounts, especially those of his death, are conflicting. Some say he was crucified. Some say he was stoned and then beheaded.
What we know for sure is this: after Judas’ tragic death, Peter gathered together the remaining apostles and they elected somebody to replace him (Acts 1:15-26). This man was Matthias, somebody who had been with them from the beginning and had witnessed the resurrection.
What was Matthias thinking at the time? How were they feeling about Judas’ betrayal? Were he and the apostles still reeling from everything that had transpired? Judas had, after all, been travelling with them as a brother for three years. The anger his actions provoked would have been deeply personal. This was not injustice in the abstract: this involved the handing over of their master and friend—their rabbi and their God—to death, at the hands of a political regime they hated. Did this shape how Matthias approached the responsibility of being an apostle?
We are told at the beginning of Acts that Jesus stayed with the apostles for forty days after his resurrection to 'tell them about the kingdom of God' (1:3). Did Judas ever come up in conversation? Had the resurrection of Jesus affected their feelings towards Judas? Did they ever discuss his fate? Did they mourn? Was there hope?
Whatever the case, the gravity of Matthias’ election would surely have been felt.
There is also a significance to Matthias’ election that extends beyond the personal and to the very life of the church. What we see unfolding in the first chapter of Acts is the beginning of the church’s apostolic succession. Prior to their vote, Peter quotes Psalm 109:8: 'Let someone else take his office.' The position of apostle was one that could be filled by someone else: it was an office, a specific ministry into which others could be brought.
This was one of the many moments in which the church began to grow and learn and discover itself through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The process that elected Matthias is the process that continues today with the appointment of every bishop around the world. At the heart of this office are the sacraments and mission: being a witness to Christ 'to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1:8). The beginning of this apostolic succession, despite the grave betrayal of Judas, is what we celebrate in St Matthias.