Do you have a favourite saint? A person from the Bible perhaps, or Christian history, or maybe even a contemporary who was particularly instrumental in your faith? As it happens, St Luke, whose feast is today, is one of my favourite saints, so I’m excited to tell you why I feel drawn to his personality and writings.
What do we know from scripture and tradition about this man, called St Luke? The literary style of his writings and the range of his vocabulary mark him as an educated man. His cultural background is not very clear, but many agree that on balance, he was likely a Jewish Christian who followed a Greek lifestyle, and was comparatively lax in ritual observances of any sort. Paul’s writings mention Luke three times as a companion on the missionary journeys -- in one such reference, calling him “the beloved physician.” As such, the Church remembers Luke as a patron saint of medical professionals.
Chiefly, however, we think of St Luke as one of the Evangelists. He is, in fact, the author of two New Testament books. The first book is his Gospel (c. 85 CE), and the second -- the Acts of the Apostles (perhaps, c. 70-90 CE). The books form a cohesive account of the spread of Jesus’ “good news” from the outskirts of the Roman empire, via the heart of Israel in Jerusalem, and westwards towards the very centre of the imperial power in Rome. Luke indicates his own participation in this mission by the use of “we” in some sections of Acts. After Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and imprisonment in nearby Caesarea, Luke may have spent considerable time in the area, gathering the materials for his future writings. Two years later, he appears with Paul on his prison voyage from Caesarea to Rome, and finally, at the time of Pauls’ martyrdom in Rome c. 66 CE.
What is relatively less known about Luke, however, is that according to the Eastern tradition, he was also the first person to paint an icon. It was of the Mother of God, the closest in appearance to the famous Virgin of Vladimir. Many painters have subsequently depicted this scene by placing St. Luke in front of an easel, painting this portrait of the Mother and Child. There are multiple ideas as to what happened to Luke’s original work(s), including their discovery and transportation from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the 5th century, and subsequent loss during the Middle Ages.
Therefore, what I find fascinating about St Luke Luke is his giftedness in such diverse areas. Equally competent with his medical instruments, a pen, and a paint-brush, he strikes me as a very balanced individual. As an artist-physician, I think he must have really been in tune with the longing for both physical and spiritual healing that he saw in people all around him. This enabled him to truly grasp the truth of the gospel and convey it in his writings and paintings. The important aspect of this truth, and the one which Luke tends to emphasise, is that God loves all the saints that he has created -- created as good! -- so much that he became one of them, healed and blessed them, and taught them how to heal and bless each other in turn.
For example, to illustrate Luke’s focus on this, let’s compare his version of the Beatitudes with that of St Matthew. To start, Matthew’s version is known as the “Sermon on the Mount, while Luke’s is the “Sermon on the Plains”. According to Matthew, Jesus leaves the crowds who began to follow him, and goes up to a mountain to teach the Beatitudes only to his disciples. But in Luke’s account, Jesus comes down from the mountain to all the people gathered there hoping for physical healings, and he teaches them these principles of spiritual wellness after he heals their physical diseases, and provides for them a meal. Both types of events in Jesus’ life might have occurred, and likely, more than once each; but it is Luke who specifically pays attention to Jesus’ movement “down onto the plain”, rather than up and away from the world. Yet, it is also only Luke who gives us the detailed account of Ascension of Jesus; which again, suggests to me that he wrote from a very balanced perspective.
As such, contrary to the popular perception, the Beatitudes of Luke, as well as his writings as a whole, do not intend to set an impossible standard of holiness. Instead, they inspire us to see God’s blessings in the lives of all saints, and observe the connection between earth and heaven as it is formed within the human heart. All of us have been given a unique set of gifts, and our circumstances help us to discover it. We learn humility from lacking, patience from rejection, hope from suffering, generosity from stretching ourselves, and the capacity to forgive from interacting with those with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye. We learn these also by empathizing with the trials of others, such as those of the poor and mourners.
This is a good idea to ponder in advance of the season of All Saints, two Sundays from now, isn’t it? In fact, the saints who lived in the past, such as St Luke, don’t need our commemoration. They are already in a perpetual celebration and ultimate glory. Observances such as sants’ days are really for us. It is we who need to remember the holy ones’ examples -- and, to recognize the sacred gifts God gave to us, too. Today, we offer thanks to God for bestowing the gift of healing on St Luke: healing with his hands, his art, and his words. And as we celebrate Luke’s faithful response to the working of God’s grace within him, may we all find a way to emulate his life by using our own words, spoken and written, to create beauty, truth, and wholeness in the lives of others. Amen.