On October 18, the Church will celebrate the Feast of Saint Luke, one of the four evangelists, or Gospel writers. We will look at five unique facts about Saint Luke, the author of the third Gospel.
Luke was a physician
Prior to and during his time as a leader in the early Church, Saint Luke was a medical doctor by trade. In his letter to the Colossians, Saint Paul calls Luke “the beloved physician,” (Colossians 4:14). Luke’s profession as a doctor is even apparent from the way he wrote his Gospel. He includes more miracles of physical healing than do any of the other Gospels (thirteen, compared to twelve in Matthew, eleven in Mark, and only two in John). His description of the sick people whom Jesus cures sometimes displays a knowledge of medicine that is not present in the other Gospels, such as the use of precise medical terms such as “dropsy” (Luke 14: 1-6). In relating the scene in which Jesus cures a woman with a hemorrhage, Luke doesn’t include Mark’s verse that she “had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse,” (Mark 5:26). Perhaps Luke didn’t want to tread on the reputation of his own profession!
Luke’s symbol is the ox
In traditional Christian iconography, each of the four Evangelists is represented by a living creature: Matthew’s symbol is an angel or a man, Mark’s is a lion, Luke’s is an ox, and John’s is an eagle. Luke’s symbol is the ox, a creature known for its strength, reliability, and service to mankind. This is fitting because Luke emphasizes Jesus’ role as both priest (the one making the sacrifice) and the sacrifice itself. The third gospel includes much of what we know about the events leading up to Jesus’ birth and childhood (known as the infancy narratives). Very early on in the Gospel, Luke tells the story of Zechariah the priest, the father of John the Baptist, offering sacrifices to God in the temple (Luke 1: 8-9). Luke speaks of Mary’s role in Christ’s life and the sacrifices that she voluntarily made in order to usher in God’s plan of salvation for mankind. This can be seen, for example, when Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the temple as an infant, the prophet Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35). All of these sacrificial figures (Jesus, Mary and Zechariah) are symbolized in the ox.
Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles
In addition to composing one of the four Gospels, Saint Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the book immediately following the Gospels. Although Saint Paul wrote more books, Luke’s two contributions are long enough that they actually make up a greater percentage of the New Testament (about 24%) than those of any other author.
Acts of the Apostles serves as a sort of “Volume Two” to Luke’s Gospel. Both are addressed to Theophilus, and Acts begins by referring back to Luke’s Gospel, calling it “the first book,” (Acts 1:1). The introduction to Acts establishes that the first book (Luke’s Gospel) was about the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus, while this second book is about the acts of Jesus’ Apostles (hence the title), after His Ascension. Throughout Acts, Luke documents the events of the first few years of the Catholic Church, including the stoning of Stephen, the Church’s first martyr (Acts 6); the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), in which the Church determined that Gentile converts did not need to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus; and a number of Saint Paul’s missionary journeys. A combination of history, travel log and theology, Acts of the Apostles makes for a fascinating glimpse into the life of the early Church.
Luke was a confidante of the Virgin Mary and an Artist!
As mentioned above, each of the four Gospels stresses different themes and facets of Jesus’ life. One of the emphases of Luke’s Gospel is the role of the Virgin Mary. The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, comprising a hundred and thirty-two verses, are dedicated to the infancy narratives, of which Mary plays the most central role, besides Jesus. Luke chronicles the archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce the Good News, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Nativity, the visit of the shepherds, Jesus’ naming and circumcision, Jesus’ conversations in the temple at age twelve, and His family life with Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. The level of detail in Luke’s account of Jesus’ early years has led historians to believe that Luke must have known Mary personally, and heard about these events first-hand from her.
Tradition holds that he was the first one to paint a picture of the Virgin Mary! As the tradition goes, he spent a lot of time with the Virgin Mary at St. John’s house, where he got to know her story and about Jesus from her perspective. Thus, he was able to write Jesus’ infancy narrative that occurs in St. Luke. The tradition further goes that, being an accomplished painter, he painted Our Lady’s portrait, putting Christ as an infant with her, as some of the first church icons.
In addition to the Virgin Mary, Luke also mentions Elizabeth, Simon’s mother-in-law, a mourning widow, a prostitute, women of Galilee who followed Jesus, Jairus’s daughter, a woman with hemorrhages, Martha and Mary, a crippled woman, and Mary Magdalene. In doing this, Luke was highlighting the fact that the Gospel message is meant for the whole human race, men and women alike. While much of the ancient world was male-dominated, Jesus went out of his way to bring God’s love to women, many of whom were among the most forgotten and cast-out members of society. It is because of his emphasis on the Virgin Mary and women in general that Luke has been called the “Marian Gospel,” and the “Gospel of women.”
Luke was a companion of Saint Paul
Just as Mary is a central figure in Luke’s Gospel, so also Saint Paul occupies a prominent place in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke chronicles Paul’s conversion to the Catholic faith on the road to Damascus, his interactions with Peter and the other Apostles, and his early missionary journeys. This leads many theologians and scholars to believe that Luke must have been one of Paul’s travel companions. He might even have been Paul’s secretary for a time, since in his Second Letter to Timothy, Paul says, “Luke is the only one with me,” (2 Timothy 4:11). Someone like Paul might have had scribes write out their letters as they dictated them orally, and so it’s possible that Luke took dictation from Paul as his scribe. Even if he didn’t physically accompany Paul on all of his missionary journeys, Luke was at least a close confidante of Paul’s, since he probably would have acquired the details from Paul firsthand.
Luke’s occupation, his acquaintances, and his travels all contributed to the way he wrote Acts and his Gospel. This is just one of many examples of how the Bible is a work fully Divine and fully human. The Holy Spirit inspired each of the inspired writers of the Bible to say exactly what He wanted them to say, for the sake of our salvation. At the same time, each human author was truly an author; his own knowledge, style, background and personality went into his work, just as with any human author. Seeing Luke as the physician, the traveler, the friend of Mary, the companion of Paul – in a word, seeing him as a human being – provides a fascinating insight into his writings. The products of both the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and Luke’s own authorship, his Gospel and Acts give us a unique look at the Gospel message. On his feast day today let us pray for his intercession, that we may know Jesus more fully as the Son of Mary, the sacrificial victim of our sins, and the Divine Physician.