St. Luke the Evangelist (October 18)

AFTER THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS (September 14) we begin the Cycle of St Luke. Selections from his Gospel are appointed to be read every day at the Divine Liturgy. About one month later, on October 18, we keep the remembrance of St Luke himself.

Aside from a few bits of information in the Scriptures we knew little about St. Luke, even though he composed a substantial part of the New Testament itself. Besides the Gospel St Luke composed the Acts of the Apostles as the second part of the story of Christ and the early Church (cf., Acts 1:1). Some commentators think that St Luke also had a part in writing the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Luke was a companion of St Paul, probably since his stay at Troas, on the coast of Asia Minor. It is here that St Luke begins speaking of Paul and his companions as “we” (Acts 16:10). Luke is mentioned as St Paul’s companion in two epistles, Colossians and Philemon, both written towards the end of Paul’s life. When St Paul appealed to Caesar, St Luke accompanied him from Caesarea to Rome (cf., Acts 28:16). Towards the end of St Paul’s life, it seem that Luke was his only companion (cf., 2 Tim 4:11).

Luke and Antioch

Ancient authors speak of Antioch as Luke’s birthplace (Eusebius’ Church History III and Gospel Questions IV) while St Paul says that he was a physician (Col 4:14). It seems that he was not a Jew. In the same passage others are mentioned as Jews but Luke is not. “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner greets you with Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, about whom you received instructions (if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus, who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision” (Colossians 4:10-11).

As a native of Antioch Luke was likely a Greek but he may have been one of the many Greek proselytes to Judaism in the city, which also had a notable Jewish population. In the first-century AD proselytes to Judaism were generally pagans (Greeks and Romans) who had come to believe in one God, worshipped in the synagogue and observed the morality of the Jews. They had not accepted circumcision, nor did they observe ceremonial laws. Many of them came to accept Jesus as the Christ.

Did St. Luke See Christ?

One tradition, first mentioned in the Panarion of Epiphanius, says that St. Luke was one of the Seventy, the second circle of disciples called by Christ. He is often mentioned in commentaries as the unnamed companion of Cleopas who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. This idea is even found in our Menologion, the liturgical book containing the service for his feast.

Others, however, say that there was no evidence that Luke, an educated Greek from Antioch, had been in Galilee or Judea during Christ’s ministry, although it cannot be ruled out. In the first verses of the Gospel Luke describes himself as having investigated everything carefully, which is why he wrote this narrative for Theophilos. This suggests to many that Luke was not recording first-hand impressions but compiling the reminiscences of others.

Perhaps the liturgical designation of Luke as an apostle and as one of the Seventy resembles calling St Paul one of the Twelve. “Twelve” and “Seventy” were understood in the early Church as designations of office rather than as historical references.

Luke as an Iconographer

In the sixth century Theodore, a reader at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, compiled a history from various sources. In it he describes an image of the Theotokos which Empress Eudoxia found in Jerusalem and sent to Constantinople. This may have given rise to the belief, first recorded in the ninth century, that St Luke had painted the first icon of the Theotokos. The Hodigitria icon (she who shows the way), which was prized in the capital until it was lost in the Ottoman invasion, was attributed to him.

A Byzantine icon of the Theotokos revered in Rome was long held to be by St. Luke, but has been shown to be no earlier than the fifth century in origin. Called “Salus Populi Romani” (the salvation of the Roman people), it is enshrined in the Basilica of St. Mary Major and has been visited frequently by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

The Death of St. Luke

We know little about St. Luke after the martyrdom of St Paul. He is said to have returned to Asia Minor, preaching in the Churches there, in Greece and the Balkans. According to a fairly early tradition he died in Boeotia, a district in central Greece, and was buried in Thebes, its principal city. After the founding of Constantinople, when many well-known relics were brought to the capital, St Luke’s body was taken to Constantinople during the reign of the Emperor Constantius, son of St Constantine the Great.

Some time before 1187 – the circumstances are not known – the body was brought to Padua, Italy and enshrined in Padua’s Church of St. Justina where it remains. In 1992 the Orthodox Metropolitan of Thebes requested a portion of the relics from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Padua. Carbon-14 dating and other tests were carried out on the body and on the reputed skull of St Luke enshrined at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. The skull and the body were demonstrated to be that of a single individual from Syria who died sometime after ad 72. The Bishop of Padua sent to Thebes the rib closest to the heart which was then reburied in the original tomb of St. Luke.

In December, 1997 the tomb began exuding myrrh and since then the interior of the tomb has been fragrant.

In Praise of St. Luke

What shall I call you, O divinely-inspired Apostle Luke? A river flowing to us from Paradise? The Ark of the Covenant established by Christ? A star shining forth the supreme Light? A radiance illuming the Church of God? A table of the Bread of Life and a divine Chalice? Intercede for the salvation of our souls.

What shall I call you, O glorious Apostle Luke? An attentive physician who heals souls and bodies with the treasures of Heaven’s graces? A collaborator and traveling companion of Paul? The writer of the Acts of the Apostles, O holy Luke? There are many names for your many qualities. Intercede for the salvation of our souls.

What shall I call you, O divine preacher Luke? A disciple who gave us the good news of Christ? A physician through whom our souls are healed of their passions? A radiance shining the supreme Light? The solid foundation of the Faith who wrote an account of the all-holy Gospel for our sake? Intercede for the salvation of our souls.

O holy apostle of Christ, whose divine teachings you relate, foundation stone of the Church: truly, by your preaching, you have drawn back from the abyss of perdition the hearts darkened by ignorance. You save them from the violence of the stormy waves, O you who were both the companion and imitator of Paul, the Vessel of Election. O wondrous Luke, we entreat you, O jewel of the Antiochians: intercede before the Savior, our God, for the faithful who celebrate your sacred memory.

Stichera at Vespers