Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
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
 
AS A RULE, JESUS DID NOT EXPLAIN His parables in detail. He left His hearers to interpret their meaning for themselves. The parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15) is an exception. The Lord assigns a meaning to each item in it: the seed is the word of God, it germinates or not according to the hearers or the circumstances of their lives.

“The Seed Is the Word of God”

From its beginning the Church saw itself called to continue the mission of Christ the Sower to evangelize: to sow the seed of the Gospel throughout the world. “The seed,” the Lord says, “is the word of God” but just what is the core message that we are to proclaim? The New Testament suggests an answer: according to the apostolic writer it is “That which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled concerning the Word of life…that which e have seen and heard we declare to you that you also may have fellowship with us for truly out fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1, 3). “That which was from the beginning” – Human experience has never imagined the world without the presence of God, everywhere present and filling all things. He is the only truly existing One, from whom all creation has its being. “That which we have seen with our eyes” – Jesus is that Word, the Messiah awaited by Israel and incarnate of the Virgin Mary, to whose death and resurrection the apostles testified. “That which we have looked upon and our hands have handled” – Christians bear witness to continually experiencing Christ in their midst in concrete ways, as He said:
  • “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20) – In the Church at worship – principally at the Eucharist but also in the fullness of the Church year with its feasts, fasts and observances – Christ is physically present to us.
  • “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me” (Mattew 25:40) – By extending hospitality, especially to the poor, we look upon and handle Christ, truly present to us in flesh and blood.
“Fellowship with the Father and the Son” – Our life in the Church is meant to open us to have communion with God the Holy Trinity in this life and in the age to come.

A Parish that Sows the Word of God?

In the West evangelists have generally focused on the first two of these points: the existence of God and the mission of Christ in the world, while minimizing “that which we have handled,” the witness of the worshipping community to whom seekers might be brought. As Eastern Christians we have a unique way of proclaiming the message of Christ: through the life of a community energized by the Liturgy. In the West some have reduced the liturgy to bare bones to focus on a message disconnected from community life; still others have trivialized the liturgy into a kind of feel good community meeting. Eastern communities living their liturgical life to the full are able to proclaim the message “which we have looked upon and our hands have handled” and might thereby speak to some who have outgrown the empty secularism of the day. For this to happen our experience of a worshipping community must reflect the vision expressed in our Tradition. Fr. Thomas Hopko told the story of encouraging such a seeker to attend the Liturgy to experience the fullness of Orthodoxy. The man did so, and his response was, “Everything you told me was a lie.” The people were physically present, but not participating on any visible level. They ignored him and another visitor at the coffee hour, etc. This incident makes us ask, What would an outsider learn about our parish and its faith on any given Sunday? A brief checklist might help: Does our parish gathering communicate a sense of fellowship with God? Do people seem eager to stand before the Lord in His holy place, to light candles, venerate icons, etc. or drift in at the last moment and stand in the back? Is the full observance of the Lord’s Day and the feasts and fasts of the Church year central to parish life? Are our parishioners committed to worship and to growing in knowledge and practice of their faith? What does the parish do to encourage such commitment? How many parishioners could answer a visitor’s inquiry about the Church and its faith? Is our parish a welcoming community: do visitors feel that they are welcome guests or suspicious outsiders? Many commentators have observed that for parishes to convincingly sow the seed they must be committed to a strong faith and practice of their tradition. They must also have a zeal for bringing others to the Lord and to His Church. Do your parishioners care that certain families or even a particular generation (young or old) are absent from the Sunday Liturgy? What have they done to concretely manifest their concern? Or do they rely on the priest alone to fill the pews? Nor every individual is a street preacher, but the parish as a whole should be committed to sowing seeds in one form or another.

Fortune-Cookie Evangelization

Whenever you order Chinese food you receive, unasked, a fortune cookie. A similar approach may help many of our parishioners begin to re-evangelize themselves and painlessly spread the word of God. The events that draw outsiders to our parishes generally fall into two categories: sacraments and fundraisers. Guests at weddings or funerals who come for social reasons may be given a memento in the name of the parish which connects the word of God with what they have seen and heard, such as What We Believe about Marriage or Is There an Afterlife? Pamphlets on more general topics could be included with every purchase at bake sales, food festivals or Christmas bazaars. Those interested in learning more could be directed to the parish or eparchial web site. Parishioners, especially your college students and young adults, might suggest topics for these inserts. They could be encouraged to post them on their Facebook pages or on other social media sites. As a prelude to distributing these messages, parishioners themselves could be walked through the leaflets helping them to answer some basic questions which might arise (and be evangelized themselves). A steady practice of “fortune-cookie evangelism” can raise everyone’s awareness of our call to proclaim that which we have heard and seen.

Was the Sower Wasting the Seed?

In the parable the sower casts his seed about indiscriminately, at the risk of losing much of what he has planted. But where his seed takes root, it multiplies a hundredfold. It was, perhaps, like contemporary advertising. Most ads are thrown out but a few people are drawn to what they offer. Parishes seeking to share what they have seen and heard can expect a lack of interest on the part of many. This should not discourage them from continuing to sow the seed. If the seed takes root in one out of a hundred hearts, the effort is worthwhile.

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