18 October 2018

Saint Luke, physician,
icon writer, evangelist
and intrepid traveller

Saint Luke in a spandrel beneath the dome in Analipsi Church (Εκκλησία Ανάληψη) or the Church of the Ascension in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

In the Church Calendar, today [18 October] is the Feast of Saint Luke (Λουκάς) the Evangelist, traditionally remembered as the author of the Third Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles.

I have never quite worked out why Saint Luke among the four evangelists is traditionally represented in Church art and architecture as a winged ox. But I find he is an interesting Biblical figure, not just as an evangelist, but as a writer who provided fascinating accounts of his travels – in all, he names 32 countries, 54 cities and nine islands – and as a key figure in the tradition of icons and iconography.

Although Saint Luke is not one of the Twelve, he figures throughout the New Testament. Apart from the Gospel he gives his name to and the Acts of the Apostles, he is also mentioned in the Epistle to Philemon (verse 24), Colossians (4: 14) and II Timothy (4: 11), which is part of the Epistle reading in the Lectionary readings for today.

Later traditions claim Saint Luke is one of the Seventy at the heart of the Gospel reading today, that he is one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or even that he is closely related to the Apostle Paul. But Saint Luke, in his own statement at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us he was not an eyewitness to the events of the Gospel. On the other hand, he repeatedly uses the word ‘we’ as he describes Saint Paul’s missionary journeys in the Acts of the Apostles, indicating he was personally there so many times.

Yet, both the Gospel according to Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are detailed in history, expression, and narrative that are held in regard by Biblical historians and archaeologists for their historical accuracy and trustworthiness.

Saint Luke is also known as the ‘glorious physician,’ and – especially in the Eastern Church – as an icon writer.

It is said that Saint Luke was born in Antioch in Syria (now in Turkey) to Greek-speaking parents. As a physician, he was said to have had a skill for healing, but that he left all this behind around the year 50 AD and joined Saint Paul after they met in Antioch.

He may have accompanied Saint Paul on his missionary journeys before staying on in Troas (Troy) after Saint Paul’s departure, although it is also possible that he was with Saint Paul in Rome until Saint Paul was martyred (see II Timothy 4: 11; Acts 28: 16). Tradition says Saint Luke died in Thebes, in central Greece, at the age of 84.

Saint Luke gives us the great poetry of the canticles Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55), Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79) and Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-32). Saint Luke alone gives us the Annunciation, the Visitation, the birth of Saint John the Baptist, and the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. Saint Luke introduces us to Elizabeth and Zechariah, the angels and the shepherds at the first Christmas, Simeon and Anna, the Christ Child lost in the Temple, the Good Samaritan, the unjust steward, the Prodigal Son, the healed Samaritan, Zacchaeus the tax-collector in Jericho, and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

Saint Luke devotes significantly more attention to women. He presents Christ as the constant friend of the poor, the down-trodden, the marginalised, the side-lined, healing the sick, comforting even the despairing thief on the cross beside him.

As I arm challenged by the ways of the world, I sometimes wonder how – like Saint Luke the Gospel writer and Saint Luke the Iconographer – I can present the world with meaningful and accessible accounts and images of who Christ is.

As I remain committed to mission in the work of the Anglican mission agency USPG, I find inspiration in the commitment of Saint Luke the early missionary, with his accounts of the missionary work of the early Church.

Without Saint Luke, it wonder how we would have come to know about the earliest missionary endeavours of Saint Paul and the Apostolic Church.

Saint Luke remains an attractive and interesting Biblical figure ... as an evangelist, as someone who presents Christ in ways that can be understood in the language of the people, whether word or image, as someone who gives healing a proper place in ministry, as a friend of the poor and the sick, the marginalised and the stereotyped, as someone who, in all his travels and travails, remains faithful unto death to the ministry he is called to and is charged with.

‘Study for the Calf of Saint Luke’ by Graham Sutherland in the ‘Consequence of War’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Readings: Isaiah 35: 3-6 or Acts 16: 6-12a; Psalm 147: 1-7; II Timothy 4: 5-17; Luke 10: 1-9.


Almighty God,
you called Luke the physician,
whose praise is in the gospel,
to be an evangelist and physician of the soul:
By the grace of the Spirit
and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel,
give your Church the same love and power to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Living God,
may we who have shared these holy mysteries
enjoy health of body and mind
and witness faithfully to your gospel,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint John the Divine and Saint Luke the Evangelist in a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, near Lichfield, that may also be the work of Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), the Victorian stained glass designer and manufacturer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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