On October 18, Christians in both East and West commemorate the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke.
But “Provider of Songs”, as above? I made that up, because from Luke’s Gospel come so many beautiful texts as if intended for singing. Christians indeed later set them to music, and use them regularly in worship. This Post will therefore contain fewer words than usual (hooray! they all cried) but…you want music? Have we got music!
All we know of Saint Luke’s background is that he was from Antioch in Syria, then the Great City of the East. He is listed among the Seventy Apostles mentioned in the Gospel for his feast day. Luke 10:16-21 Luke wrote the third Gospel account in the Scriptures and so is titled Evangelist, “Gospeler”.
In his Gospel alone we hear the story of the two men who on Pascha night walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but did not recognize him. You remember how they invited him to stay and eat with them. As he blessed the bread, they suddenly knew him and he “vanished from their sight”. He calls the two men “Cleopas and the other disciple”, which was a conventional way of referring to oneself. So Luke had seen the risen Lord. He is mentioned often in the New Testament as a companion of Saint Paul. In the Epistle for Luke’s feast day Colossians 4:5-11, 14-18 Paul says “Luke the beloved physician greets you”. So he was a doctor. This likely explains why his Gospel account has so many stories of Christ’s healing miracles. I won’t try to list them all.
At the beginning of his Gospel account Luke explains why he wrote it: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me, also having had perfect understanding of all things from the first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilos, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” Luke 1:1-4
By the time Luke wrote, many accounts of the life of Jesus Christ were making the rounds, some only partial or even inaccurate – perhaps even some of the spurious ones that have had much publicity in recent times, the so-called Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene and the like, which were only imaginative speculations, no doubt driving those who had known Jesus personally “up the wall”. So Luke intended to fill in information missing in previous writings and otherwise set things straight.
So how to do it? In the obvious way. As he says, he went back to the original sources, people had been eyewitnesses of Jesus and the events of his life. Luke himself had followed Christ and been one of the Seventy “lesser” Apostles. If you can find Saint Luke here, God bless you! He had seen Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. He also knew those who had been there “from the beginning”. That gave him the knowledge and connections he needed to write his “orderly account”.
Who was Theophilos? The Greek word Θεοφιλος means “lover of God”. It is possible this meant Luke was addressing his Gospel account to all who loved God, but tradition says Theophilos was an individual, a prominent Gentile convert, who possibly funded Luke’s efforts .
Christ’s Birth Narratives in Luke
Luke gives special attention to all the events that surrounded this Greatest of All Events.
Only Luke reports, and in great detail:
1 The story of the Conception and Birth of John the Baptist to Zachariah and Elizabeth in their old age. I’ve wondered if he got some of this account by interviewing old people of their village, for he says, “All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things”. Luke 1:1-65 Just guessing.
From this account comes the proclamation of Zachariah when his tongue was loosed: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed his people… And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:68-19 This is sung by both Roman Catholics and Anglicans in their morning “offices”. I wish we Orthodox did the same. Below: classic Gregorian chant
2 The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, from which comes the first section of the prayer “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women”, used by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox, with each of us having our own special ending.(We’ll get to that in point 4.)
3 Mary’s visit to Elizabeth when the Virgin (based the song of Hannah, mother of Samuel) recited the beloved Hymn, “My soul doth magnify the Lord” which we sing almost daily at Orthros. Could I find a video of an Orthodox version in English? No. But Rachmaninoff’s is gorgeous.
This Magnifcat is sung at Roman Catholic Vespers and Anglican Evensong.
4 Elizabeth’s greeting to the Virgin, which Roman Catholics combine with the Angel’s Annunciation to her to form the first half of their prayer: “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed if the fruit of your womb…”
We Orthodox use those same elements to create the “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos”, the beautiful song used at the end of Great Lenten weekday Vespers. Once again, I’ve tried again in vain to find a version in English. So let’s try a Serbian choir.
5 Mary’s account of the Birth of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. The announcement of the angel to the shepherds provides the beginning of our Doxology used daily (sung on Sundays), the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will towards men…” Liturgical Westerners sing it early in their Mass or Eucharistic service.
Here is the Orthodox Great Doxology, sung by the Mount Lebanon choir of Lebanon – partially in English!
Or would you like a Latin one by Vivaldi?
6 The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, on the eighth day.
7 The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on the fortieth day after his birth, from which comes the Song of the elder Simeon which we sing at every Vespers: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…”
Roman Catholics sing this at Compline, and Anglicans at Evensong.
7 The account of Jesus remaining behind in the temple in Jerusalem, and how his Mother rebuked him. Try to imagine rebuking God Incarnate!
And so much more. Saint Luke: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Why did Luke record all these stories about Christ’s early life?
There must have been a reason. And he tells us, twice, exactly what it was. He got them from the Theotokos. These events are described from her point of view. (Those in Matthew’ Gospel, equally obviously, are Joseph’s telling, likely passed down through his family.)
After the Nativity account Luke wrote “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Luke 2:19 And again after the story of how they lost him the temple: “His mother kept all these things in her heart.” Luke 2:51 The Mother of God remembered all these things, meditated on them and told them, tradition says, directly to Saint Luke. So Luke did exactly what he said. He went back to the original sources – and she alone had been present for some of these events. If his Gospel account was written around AD 60 as many say, she would have been in her mid 70s – whether she then still lived with John in Ephesus or had returned to Jerusalem.
Tradition says Luke was also a portrait painter, the Church’s first iconographer. There are later icons showing him writing the first icon of the Virgin Mary when he went back to interview her. That is impossible to prove, of course, but there is circumstantial evidence for it: There has always been only one image of the Virgin Mary: in icons she has always looked like this. There must have been a single source of that image. I mean, if there had been a multitude of different speculative images of her at the beginning, how could they have coalesced on this one and all the others have disappeared. Things don’t happen that way. Also, there are a number of icons of her in the East attributed to Saint Luke.
Luke also wrote the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, telling the story of the early Church as we moved west – was present for much of that, and occasionally he even shifts from saying “they” did thus and so to “we” did it. Acfs 15:10 for example.
Luke recorded only the early history of the Church in the Mediterranean. Of course, at the same time other Apostles were also moving east, north and south. Luke told us what he knew..
Luke was with Paul in Rome. Acts ends with Paul still alive. Paul was martyred about the year 65, so Acts must have been written before then.
Tradition says Luke then proclaimed the Gospel in Achaia (the Athens region), Libya and Egypt. He was martyred back in Greece, in Thebes to the north of Athens, tradition says crucified on an olive tree. His relics were taken later to Constantinople, then apparently stolen by the Crusaders when they sacked the Great City, for they were in Padua in Italy after that.
In 1992 the Metropolitan of Thebes wrote nicely to ask if Thebes could please have them back. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Padua had the bones tested. (We Orthodox don’t do that. We usually judge relics according to whether miracles proceed from them.) The DNA was appropriate for a Syrian man of the First Century, which would indicate their authenticity. But he concluded that they had been rightfully and lawfully stolen (just like the Elgin marbles), so he sent one of Luke’s ribs back to Thebes and kept the rest. Oh well.
Kontakion of Luke the Evangelist
“As a disciple of the Word of God, with Paul you illuminated all the earth and dispelled the gloom by writing Christ’s divine Gospel.”