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St Luke: Beloved Physician

St Luke: Beloved Physician

We remember St Luke on October 18th each year, and on this occasion, Fr Sam McNally-Cross, vicar of St Thomas, Kensal Town, gives us a short biography of the evangelist, patron of medicine and the arts.

The author of one of the three synoptic gospels, St Luke the Evangelist, is celebrated on October 18th. He is one of the most prolific writers in the New Testament writing the longest gospel but also having The Acts of the Apostles attributed to his hand too—combined making up over one quarter of the entirety of the New Testament. Luke also seems to appear as a character in Acts, which contains a shift in the writing from describing Paul and his followers as ‘them’ to ‘we’ when they left Troas in, it is estimated, 51 CE. Indeed, the name Luke is mentioned in several letters that bear the apostle’s name, Philemon, 2 Timothy, and Colossians. Colossians is notable for referring to him as the beloved physician, or the ‘one who heals’. In 2 Timothy, we find a note about Luke’s loyalty as a follower Paul—‘Only Luke is with me’ (2 Timothy 4:11), he writes from prison. [1]

His gospel, likely to have been authored around 80-110AD is thought by scholars to have relied on several sources: the earlier gospel of St Mark, the hypothetical Q (from the German quelle meaning source) for the teachings of Jesus, and inferred aural teachings known as L, which includes several parables and an account of the nativity. Key to understanding Luke’s gospel, and indeed the man himself, is a focus on the way in which it treats the topic of salvation. It is a writing of salvation history conveying Luke’s belief that God’s purpose is seen through the way God has acted and will continue to act in history. Luke emphasis on this also indicates that he is writing for a Gentile audience, rather than for Jews who would already be acquainted with the acts of God as have been passed down from generation to generation.

St Luke . Taken from catholic

St Luke. Taken from catholic

There will always be good spirited debate and dispute about the authorship and identity of a man who lived so long ago, who is mentioned only in passing and left no signed originals of his great works. However, one of the aspects of his writing (although hotly disputed if you delve deeply into scholarly textual analysis of scripture) is the way in which Luke writes about Mary, the mother of Jesus. 

Although the Blessed Virgin appears and is clearly important to the other gospel writers what is unique to Luke is the phrase ‘But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2:19,51) - a charming phrase suggestive of Luke’s special access to Mary herself, or at the very least to those who knew her well enough to reveal something of her character in the wake of all that had happened. It is also Luke that records for us the great prayer of Mary, the Magnificat, still prayed daily at Morning Prayer. 

In the recording of this beautiful and powerful prayer we get an insight into the way in which Luke writes—with an added emphasis on the poor. In the Magnificat he writes:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.’ (Luke 1:52-53)

This shows the power of Christ to invert the unjust structures of society. He is the champion of the oppressed, marked by the change in the Beatitudes from ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3) as found in Matthew’s gospel, simply to ‘Blessed at the poor’ (Luke 6:20). As liberation theologians might say, the preferential option for the poor may well be a subject close to home for Luke. It is possible that Luke’s emphasis on the poor comes from personal experience. Although a doctor—someone we may think of in todays society as being wealthy, or at least certainly from the professional and elite—Luke may well have been a slave. It was not uncommon for a family to take an educated slave and give them medical training to ensure that they always had a personal physician in the household. Perhaps Luke’s life is rooted in the structures that Christ overturns.

Luke presents the reader (listener, originally, it is evident his gospel was intended to be read aloud) with another key aspect of Christian faith, forgiveness. Only in this gospel do we find the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son—and the especially moving description of the Father running toward his youngest wayward offspring. It is in this gospel too that we find the sinful woman (often and perhaps wrongly thought of to be Mary Magdalene) interrupting Jesus as he dines to was his feet with her tears—highlighting Jesus standing on the side of those who are from the margins, rather than the powerful, wealthy or privileged.

Following Paul’s death the stories of what Luke did next are often limited and conflicting. Some suggest that he became a Martyr—especially prominent in the Eastern and Orthodox tradition—that he was hanged or crucified on an olive tree. However, there are other stories that suggest he lived to old age, and that he died around the year 150AD at the remarkable age of 84. His body, it is said, originally rested in a coffin in Thebes, before being taken to Constantinople and finally interred in Padua, Italy.

A story in the New York Times in 2001 tells of a tooth being taken from said corpse and subjected to extensive DNA testing. The result? It was indeed characteristic of a man from the region of Antioch (where Luke was said to have been born) and the radiocarbon dating narrowed down the date of death as being somewhere between 72 CE and 416 CE.

Tentative relics aside, like any saint who has proved their worth in following Christ on earth, Luke does not get to rest in the Throne Room. He has become the patron of many different professions, places and causes, which no doubt keep him very busy interceding. Unsurprisingly, due to his apparent medical background, he is the patron of physicians and surgeons. Perhaps more surprisingly he is also the patron saint of painters. 

Legend has it that he was an accomplished artist and painted portraits of Jesus and Mary. A picture of Mary surfaced in the 6th century which was attributed to him (although subsequently proved to be fake) but the reputation stuck and painters came under his care, and various guilds keep him to this day, notable the Worshipful Company of Painters in the City of London. 

When Luke is depicted in iconography, based on his painting reputation, he is sometimes depicted with a brush and sometimes even holding a small painted image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. More commonly he is found holding a scroll and pen to show the contribution he made to scripture, and is usually depicted with a winged ox or calf—the ox being a symbol of sacrifice and therefore pointing to the sacrifice of Christ which Luke emphasises in his narrative of the atonement.

So on this, his feast day, as we remember his life and work - and give thanks for his attention to Christ in serving the poor, upturning the unjust structures of society and preserving the words of Our Lady.

St Luke, pray for us. 

  1. 2 Timothy is sometimes categorised as a deutero-pauline epistle, as its authorship is uncertain.

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