Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Leap Saint

Following on the heels of yesterday's discussion of Leap Day, I thought we should give some attention to the poor saint whose feast day happened to fall on a day that only appeared in the calendar every four years.

Matthias, from the workshop of the
Italian painter Simone Martini (c.1284-1344)
St. Matthias was not a medieval saint. He was one of the Apostles, and is thought to have died in 80 CE. That is the only quantitative piece of data that is agreed upon. He died in either Jerusalem or Judea or Colchis. Chosen by lot to replace Judas, he was called either Matthias (Acts 1:24-25) or Zacchaeus (by Clement of Alexandria), or Tolmai (by Eusebius), or Barnabas (by literature ascribed to Pope Clement I); and a 19th century German scholar thinks he is the Nathanael in the Gospel of John.

One thing that is not in dispute, however, is that his feast day was 24 February. To modern readers, that does not ring any bells. In the Classical Era and the Middle Ages, however, this put him in an unusual spot in the calendar: Leap Day.

That's right: Leap Day used to be 24 February, which you can read about here. The unusual thing about 24 February being the extra day in a Leap Year wasn't so much that it was not placed at the end of the month, but that—it being an "extra" day of the year—it was treated as a "bonus" and was simply repeated; that is, 24 February appeared twice in a row in Leap Years.

Does that mean that the feast day of St. Matthias was celebrated twice? Yes. The Smithfield Decretals, an expansive book on ecclesiastical law, explains:
A standard solar year has 365 days and six hours, so in four years’ time these hours make 24 extra hours, which must be added as a new day to every fourth year. This additional day is what we call “double-sixth-day”, because, although it is counted as an addition, it stands under the same number as the previous day in the calendar, so that the two days are regarded as one and the same. The extra day is inserted in the calendar after 24 February (six days before the first day of March) so that we celebrate the memory of St Matthias the Apostle (24 February) on the next day, too. [link]
Lucky Matthias! Little is known about him, but he gets to be venerated two days in a row! Well, not anymore. The Church of England has kept him at 24 February, but in 1969 the Roman Catholic Calendar moved him to 14 May so that he could be celebrated outside of Lent and on a post-Easter day that would be closer to what would have been the day of his choosing.

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