This is a story about a storyteller, his back-story, and the story he has to tell. Here in the bulletin, you see a photo of a statue of Luke done in 1430, seated, writing, three scrolls at his feet, an ox at his right hand.
Did you already know that Luke has an ox as a companion, or did you notice that sometimes, behind the ox’s shoulders, those bulges are not muscles, but wings? How the ox grew wings is a mystery to another day.
The statue is arresting: Luke in profile, the intensity of his focus, a slight smile on his face, the animal calm and settled, right at home. At home, that is, in the mustard capital of the world: in Dijon. The mustard-capital-of-the-world part is a myth. What’s not a myth but a legend, what every taxi driver will tell you categorically, is that their museum of fine arts ranks at the top of the hierarchy, second only to the Louvre. But to hear the backstory of the statue, I invite you.
One hundred years after Napoleon started the Louvre by looting during military campaigns in Egypt and Italy, the museum had become so bloated that its board of governors send great quantities of its art to Dijon, much of it, of course, related to the Gospel story. All four Gospels had taken shape by the year 95, and in 130, Irenaeus attached symbols to the Gospel writers: an ox, an eagle, and a lion, signs of brute endurance.
What does that say to us? Irenaeus, eager to spread the story of Jesus about the coming of a Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy, knows that for the story to take root and flourish, it needs more than just words; it needs slicking-power and heft. This is so far back in history that few people could read or access a hand-copied book. How can someone come up with a way to spread a message about the Hebrew Jesus among the Gentiles, in the Greek-speaking, Roman-dominated world in which life is controlled by soldiers and governors: a present danger and dangerous presence?
It is a legend that Luke, writer of gospel and Acts, was a physician. I interpret that as someone from a certain stratum of society, someone with a high level of education, a doctor like today’s PhD., able to write proper Greek. Luke begins to write, leaning toward the Roman culture,
some years after Jesus’ life on earth has ended in a burst of violence and mystery and glory.
In the fourteen hundred years that pass between the day Luke picks up a quill to write and the sculptor picks up a tool to chisel marble, a lot gets lost in translation. I suggest that the statue has more to say to us than tranquility. Consider that nothing is as easy as it looks, and all is not well. Luke’s process would have had more in common with the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel in the Old Testament lesson, as you see in the painting by Eugène Delacroix on the vault inside Saint Sulpice in Paris. The wrestling goes through the night without stopping, and Jacob does not give up until he finds the blessing he seeks. It’s the blessing of God that he wants, and his name changes from Jacob to Israel.
And Luke? where is the blessing? He’s clearly an historian, an on-the-ground reporter for a man names Theophilus, literally a friend of God,
perhaps Luke’s sponsor, to whom he writes as he travels around,
recording what happens day by day, how they evangelize: the acts of the apostles.
Luke is a believer, and he’s so much a believer that he sets the stage for his Gospel in a linear, matter-of-fact way. The storyteller begins with a secular, lofty, polished prologue to appeal to sophisticated readers,
something like historical writing or novels he would have read. He then launches into careful, meticulous details, a methodical telling of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the birth of John, and then the birth of Jesus, right down to precise location, who is nearby, even the animals, and what the infant wears. He uses very specific details, like shipwrecks and exotic animals and vegetation and embellishments, to give people a feel for the characters so they will remember the story, and tell their neighbors, and pass the story from parent to child, from household to household, village to village, country to country, and here we are, looking back, at an ancient piece of sculpture, a piece of art that presents Luke at work, so removed and remote in time and space, yet right here.
The story survives because the author perseveres at the task to assemble a lovely, evocative prose:
“In that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were so afraid. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, for see, I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”
This is our patron saint: Luke, the traveler, writer, the companion,
tenacious in pushing through whatever he wrestles with, cold or thirst or weariness, discouragement, or despair— all those difficulties lost in time, a Gentile writing a vast travelogue, not an eyewitness to the living and dying of Jesus, but a story set against the backdrop of the OT, as prophecy fulfilled.
We have his writing, this man pressed up against an ox for support,
leaving us rock-solid testimony that we can take to heart, and that is surely enough.
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