The Church honors St. Luke the Evangelist on October 18. Author of a unique Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, Luke is the source of the most cited parables of Jesus.
In “February Tales,” an early post on These Stone Walls, I wrote of some of the books that captivated my imagination in childhood. Working today in a library, I have come across some of them decades later in adulthood and gave them a second look. It’s a testimony to growing up that most of the books I thought were masterpieces of Western literature in my youth are only laughable today. But a rare few have stood the test of time.
One of them is a book I stumbled upon at age 16. It was 1969 and I was in my senior year of high school. I wrote a short biography of what my life was like then against the backdrop of a culture in the early days of its long moral and social decline. You could find those biographical paragraphs early on in my recent post, “Where Were You When Neil Armstrong Walked on the Moon?”
Somehow in 1969, I discovered among the tattered paperbacks of the Lynn English High School Library a historical novel that would leave its mark on my mind and soul for decades to come. Though first published in 1959, it is a testament to its literary stature that its most recent hardcover edition was published over a half century later in 2012, twenty-seven years after the author’s death. The book is Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell who described its long path:
- “This book has been forty-six years in the writing. The first version was written when I was twelve years old, the second when I was twenty-two, the third when I was twenty-six, and all through those years work did not cease on this book. It was impossible to complete, as the other versions were impossible to complete, until my husband and I visited the Holy Land in 1956.”
Taylor Caldwell published forty-three novels to much acclaim in her literary career. Among them were some stand-out historical novels. Her most famous was Captains and the Kings (1972) about the wave of Irish immigrations to America. It became an equally acclaimed television mini-series later in the 1970s.
Caldwell’s first novel was published in 1939. Her last, Unto All Men, was posthumously found and published by her grandchildren in 2012. At that time, they also republished Dear and Glorious Physician, Ms Caldwell’s labor of love that spanned decades in its writing. No other book of my youth has withstood the test of time with such power and majesty.
The author imagined the life of Saint Luke the Evangelist with such realism that it seemed as though she had followed him through it taking notes. It is impossible to know of the birth and upbringing of any of the Gospel characters. But where their life stories were absent, Ms Caldwell spent years, with the assistance of a Catholic priest and historian, researching life and culture in early First Century Antioch – which today is Southern Turkey, the world from which Saint Luke emerged.
She was also aided in this adventure by a wealth of legends about Saint Luke that surfaced in the first few centuries, some of them known to the early Church Fathers, from Antioch, Greece, and Egypt. Like many stories surrounding Biblical legends, some were built upon grains of truth
She was aided in this effort by a collection of these extra-Biblical legends surrounding Saint Luke in the possession of a Catholic nun living in Antioch during the years of her research. The end result is a remarkable volume described by Taylor Caldwell with shades of the pilgrimage of her own life:
- “This book is only indirectly about Our Lord. No novel, no historical book, can convey the story of His life so well as our Sacred Scripture. The story of Lucanus, St Luke, is the story of every man’s pilgrimage through despair and life’s darkness, through suffering and anguish, through bitterness and sorrow, doubt and cynicism, rebellion and hopelessness, to the Feet and the understanding of God. The search for God and the final revelation are the only meaning in life for men.”
THE SPIRITUAL LEGACY OF SAINT LUKE
In the Roman Rite, the Church honors and remembers Saint Luke the Evangelist on October 18. At least some of the readers of These Stone Walls may have gleaned from my posts that among the four Gospel writers, I have long been especially drawn to the work of Saint Luke. Many of my posts have been built upon Gospel passages that are unique to Luke alone. We will link to a few of the more important ones at the end of this post.
There are several factors that make Luke unique among the four Evangelists. He was the only Gentile author to compose a book in the Canon of Sacred Scripture. All others were of Israelite descent. Saint Paul hints at Luke’s Gentile identity and profession when he refers to him as “Luke the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14).
Luke is also the only Evangelist to have composed a sequel to his Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two-volume work that picks up immediately where Luke’s Gospel ends. It continues the Gospel narrative with a revelation of how, after the Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit continued to work in the living community of Christ’s mystical body, the Church.
The early manuscripts of the third Gospel, all of which were composed in highly sophisticated Greek, had the title, “Kata Loukan,” meaning “According to Luke.” Though Luke was not an Apostle (nor was Saint Mark) this title serves as a signpost of apostolic tradition in the Gospel. There was no debate whatsoever among the early Christian Church that the author of this work was indeed Luke, the companion of Saint Paul.
Like Paul, Luke had never known Jesus directly, but rather experienced Him in His post-Resurrection presence to the apostolic community and its birth at Pentecost. The Church Fathers were unanimous as far back as A.D. 170 that Luke is indeed the author of both the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.
The only professional disagreement among scholars is the time period in which the Gospel transformed from oral tradition to written form Luke himself possessed highly refined Greek linguistic ability, and his Gospel clearly reflects it. So there is no reason to believe that Luke relied on anyone else to put his Gospel in written form.
Estimates of the date of authorship vary from about A.D. 60 to A.D. 80 There is much evidence, however, to hold to the earlier date because of the close connection between this Gospel and Acts of the Apostles. The latter, which was the second to be written, concludes with Saint Paul in prison in Rome in A.D. 62 There is no hint at all of the outcome of Paul’s trial or any subsequent activity.
In Acts of the Apostles, much attention is given by Luke to the interactions between the earliest Christians and imperial Rome. However Luke presents no apparent awareness of the open persecution of Christians later in the 60s, nor does he ever mention the late 60s martyrdom of his two central characters in Acts: Saints Peter and Paul. Luke’s writings also seem unaware of the events of A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by the Romans.
The Gospel According to Luke is also unique in its near complete absence of Hebrew terms. His one theme that towers above all others is his proclamation of universal salvation for all who embrace Christ. As a writer from Antioch steeped in Greek language and culture, Luke writes for Gentile believers.
This explains his lack of Hebrew terminology. However, he also displays a profound knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, and an ability to incorporate them into his Gospel narrative by way of inference. There are a multitude of examples, but here is one from my post “Waking up in the Garden of Gethsemane.”
In the Gospel of Luke (22:31ff) Jesus is alone and apart from the others as He prays in agony in the face of death. “Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me, but Thy will, and not mine, be done.” For Hebrew ears, Luke’s account of Jesus at Gethsemane (referred to only as the Mount of Olives in Luke) is a mirror image in reverse of a scene that occurred at that very same site 1,000 years earlier.
It was a story of a son not obedient unto death, but of a son who betrayed his father. It was the agony of King David and his flight from his son, Absalom, who betrayed him:
- “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot.” (2 Samuel 15:30)
THE MAGNIFICAT AND TWO POWERFUL PARABLES
It seems clear that Luke had an awareness of the Gospel of Mark which he incorporates as a source, but he also had sources that none of the other Evangelists had. Luke’s Gospel is the sole source of the glorious Magnificat, the proclamation of Mary in her pre-Christmas visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. Many believe that Luke was given this by Mary herself (Luke 1:46-56):
- “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown strength with his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away. He has come to the help of his servant, Israel remembering his promise of mercy as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.”
Women are especially honored throughout the Gospel of Luke. His portrayal of Mary the Mother of God is unparalleled in the New Testament. He is the sole source of the Archangel Gabriel’s declaration of Annunciation – “Hail, Full of Grace” (Luke 1:28), another example of the belief of many that Mary or someone close to her was one of his sources. Luke also pays close attention to the presence of Elizabeth (1:39-45), Anna (2:36-38), the widow of Nain (7:11-17), Mary Magdalene (8:2), Mary and Martha of Bethany (10:38-42), Joanna and Susanna (8:3) and others.
Saint Luke’s Gospel presents the sole account of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, two of the most important stories and most reflected-upon moral lessons in the life of the Church. At the end of this post, I will link to some of the TSW posts that highlight popular parables unique to Luke’s Gospel. Those parables are held to be masterpieces of Catholic spirituality.
Saint Luke composed a two-part spiritual masterpiece for the ages. Taylor Caldwell would make no such claim, but by having brought Saint Luke to life some 2000 years later with such clarity, beauty and majesty, she deserves at least one not-so-coveted award to honor her accomplishment. These Stone Walls’ 2019 Stuck-Inside Literary Award is presented posthumously to Taylor Caldwell for Dear and Glorious Physician.
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post on social media. It would also help the cause of justice if you Subscribe to These Stone Walls and follow TSW on Facebook. You may also like these other tributes to the Gospel According to St. Luke:
- Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother
- St. Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us
- On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy
- The Compassion of God: The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Past Honorees of These Stone Walls’ Stuck-Inside Literary Award:
- The Stuck Inside Literary Award: At Sea with Patrick O’Brien
- The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene & For Greater Glory
- The Second Greatest Story Ever Told by Fr. Michael Gaitley
- Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan, and the Hunt for Red October