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Luke painted Mary

2009 October 17
by Gordon Reid

St_Luke_Displaying_a_Painting_of_the_Virgin_GuercinoTomorrow, on the Feast of St Luke, I don’t have to preach, since our Assisting Bishop, Rodney Michel, is presiding from the Faldstool and preaching. He was Suffragan Bishop of Long Island until he retired and is filling in in this Diocese until the situation of Bishop Charles Bennison is resolved one way or the other.

However, if I were preaching I would like to muse on the old tradition that St Luke, as well as being a physician, was also a talented painter, and that he painted some portraits of Our Lady which can still be seen today. Such icons are greatly venerated,  though whether they are by St Luke may well be doubted.

What cannot be doubted is that St Luke has given us some very  beautiful portraits of the Blessed Virgin, written not with paint but in his Gospel. Only Luke gives us glimpses of Mary at the annunciation by the Angel Gabriel that she was to be Mother of God’s Son; without Luke we would have no knowledge of the shepherds and the manger scene at Bethlehem; it is only in Luke’s gospel that we see Jesus presented in the Temple and proclaimed as the Light to enlighten  the Gentiles.

If it were not for Luke, we would not have so much that is central to the teaching and witness of Jesus himself. How impoverished we would be without the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. And only Luke gives us the words of Jesus from the Cross which ensure our forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” and, to the penitent thief “Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise”.

William Barclay wrote a very fine commentary on the Gospel according to St Luke, and here are a few extracts from his introduction which I treasure.

“Luke was a gentile; and he has the unique distinction of being the only New Testament writer who was not a Jew. He was a doctor by profession (Colossians 4:14) and maybe that very fact gave him the wide sympathy he possessed. It has been said that a minister sees men at their best; a lawyer sees men at their worst; and a doctor sees men as they are. Luke saw men and loved them all.”

Barclay calls Luke’s Gospel “The Gospel of Prayer”, citing all the great moments in the life of Jesus when he is found at prayer, and ends “To Luke the unclosed door of prayer was one of the most precious in all the world”.

He also calls it “The Gospel of Women”, contrasting the Jewish morning prayer when a man thanks God that he has not made him “a gentile, a slave or a woman” with the special place Luke gives to women, not only to our Lady, but Elizabeth, Anna, the widow of Nain, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, Martha, Mary, Mary Magdelene.

He calls it “The Gospel of Praise”, noting that if it were not for Luke, we would not have the three great hymns from the Church’s daily office: the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis and the Benedictus. He says “There is a radiance in Luke’s gospel which is a lovely thing, as if the sheen of heaven had touched the things of earth.”

And finally he calls it “The Universal Gospel”. It is to be Good News not just for the Jews, but for the Samaritans, the Gentiles, the poor, outcasts and sinners. He says: “Luke refuses to shut the door on any man … His heart runs out to everyone for whom life is an  unequal struggle … Luke of all the gospel writers sees no limits to the love of God”.

Barclay finishes his introduction with a paragraph entitled “The Book Beautiful” and says:

As we study this book we must look for these characteristics. Somehow of all the gospel writers one would have liked to meet Luke best of all, for this gentile doctor with the tremendous vision of the infinite sweep of the love of God must have been a lovely soul. Faber wrote the lines,

‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

Like the wideness of the sea.

There’s a kindness in his justice

Which is more than liberty.

For the love of God is broader

Than the measure of man’s mind;

And the heart of the Eternal

Is most wonderfully kind.’

Luke’s gospel is the demonstration that this is true.”

One Response leave one →
  1. December 18, 2009

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection! I’m working on my sermon for Advent IV, and you’ve given me some wonderful context.

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