September 21 is the feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Traditionally, Saint Matthew's Gospel was regarded as the earliest of the four Gospels, though scholars today tend to place the Gospel of Mark in that position. Still, the older order is enshrined in the canonical structure of the New Testament: As my grandmother used to say every night as she prepared for sleep, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John / bless this bed that I lie on." The order of the evangelists in this pious prayer is the order of their Gospels in the Bible.
Saint Matthew, as everyone knows, was a tax collector, but beyond that not much is known about him. A series of traditions, some of them contradictory (especially regarding the method of his martyrdom), have come down to us through the centuries. And as odd as it may seem, the author of the first Gospel makes only two appearances in his own Gospel, and three more appearances in the rest of the New Testament (one each in the gospels of Luke and Mark, and one in the Acts of the Apostles).
In the end, of course, what is most important about Saint Matthew is not the man he was but his testimony concerning the God-Made-Man. Small wonder, then, that the traditional symbol of Saint Matthew is an angel, the messenger of God.
(A stained-glass window of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, in Saint Peter's Cathedral, Rockford, Illinois. Photo © Scott P. Richert)