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St Luke, the healer of the soul


Tomorrow, Monday October 18, is St Luke’s Day

EACH of the four gospel writers tells the story of Jesus differently. If all four were exactly the same that might please the biblical fundamentalists, but to me it would look like a put-up job. For example, Matthew’s Christmas story mentions wise men where Luke has shepherds. In Matthew, the Annunciation is to Joseph but in Luke it is to Mary. Mark has no nativity story at all. Neither has John, who begins with a philosophical prologue.

Matthew traces Jesus’s genealogy to Abraham, but Luke goes right back to Adam. It is in Luke alone that we have Jesus’s resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus. A tender tale which inspired the song All in the April Evening and I thought on the Lamb of God. Luke is a physician of the soul, but he doesn’t neglect the body: he has 19 stories about meals!

Content in the gospels is important, but style too has its place.

We know quite a bit about St Luke, whom St Paul called ‘the beloved physician’. He was born in Antioch in about AD 10. He was a doctor and this fact is evidenced in his writing: in the parable about the camel and the eye of the needle, for instance, the word he uses for needle is a surgeon’s knife.

He was not only a great poet but an artist too, and he is said to have painted portraits of the Virgin Mary. His poetry is of extreme tenderness, especially in the accounts of the Nativity and the Childhood of Christ which he probably received from Mary herself: ‘And she brought forth her first-born Son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.’ St Luke’s gospel is full of admiration and affection for women – this in a time when a common Jewish prayer said: ‘I thank Thee, O Lord, for that thou hast not made me a gentile, a slave or a woman.’

He had a finely-tuned musical ear too and his words resonate and glow. He wrote: ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour . . . and Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.’ And ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for He hath visited and redeemed his people.’ It is impossible to think of those poems as anything other than hymns and songs; and, of course, that is what they became very early in the history of the church.

It is Luke who gives us the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

Luke wrote in koine Greek and his words are translated unsurpassably in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Modern versions take out all the poetry and offer literalistic banalities such as strips of cloth instead of swaddling clothes. Another discards the memorable ‘Behold the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ in favour of ‘Listen, someone is shouting in the desert.’ Shouting what? ‘Choc ices only a quid!’

He was a companion of St Paul and no doubt ministered to him when he complained of his thorn in the flesh.And when Paul was imprisoned, Luke stayed with him. He died aged 84 at Troas and in AD 357 the Emperor Constantius removed his bones and had them interred in the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.

When we think of all Luke’s writings – his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, much of which is written in the first person – and all the missionary voyages around the Mediterranean, it is no wonder that his emblem is the ox, the beast known for its sacrifice, suffering, patience and hard work. There was a medieval custom in England by which the oxen were given the day off on St Luke’s Day and the saying went: ‘On St Luke’s Day, the oxen have leave to play.’ When you read St Luke, you can feel the warmth of the man. That’s why it’s highly appropriate that the days around his Feast Day are often warm and known as St Luke’s summer.

We read in the Collect that St Luke is called aphysician of the soul. Translate that into modern English and it means a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists understand that our early experiences are formative. And most of them put a pathological spin on this.

But when Jesus said we must become as little children, he meant that we should recover the freshness of our childhood perceptions. You can perhaps remember a summer day in your childhood – the fields or the park and the trees and the river. I shall always recall an ordinary afternoon in my granny’s bedroom. No, Dr Freud, she’d only sent me there for a nap after the Yorkshire pudding and dumplings! I stood for a minute beside the curtains. It was intensely quiet, as if the whole world had gone into a clinging, velvet silence. There was a dusty sunbeam and a pattern of sunlight on the polished mahogany dressing table. There was a presence like reassurance, like love. And I can feel it, recall it, today after all those decades.

Of course, when I grew up and started to read the English poets, I recognised this experience in those marvellously haunted evocations in Wordsworth and Coleridge; and in such as Hopkins’s poem that begins: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ But I had already found the same apprehension in the Bible which my Aunt Doris had left me when she went to marry her soldier boy in New Zealand: ‘And Adam heard the voice of God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.’ And from St Luke: ‘And the women also, which came with him from Galilee and followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.’

This is the apprehension Jesus meant us to return to when he said, ‘Ye must become as a little child.’ It is the tangible presence of the Incarnation in our midst, the point of intersection of timelessness with time. It is the understanding, the reassurance, given in a moment of utter certainty that the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is. And so we need not be anxious or depressed nor fear the ‘pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday’.

William Blake said: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, we should see the world as it is – infinite.’This is the certainty of Grace which the Devil wants to destroy in us. So he sends people such as Freud or the Existentialists or miserable German philosophers and morbid Scandinavian playwrights and other anxiety-mongers: ‘whom resist steadfast in the faith’.

Resist that whole introspective psychology, getting in touch with your inner self and other varieties of me-ism and doomed philosophy, the awful world-weariness by which we are taught to despise ourselves and by which we are tempted to despair.

‘The world IS charged with the grandeur of God . . . become as a little child . . . and the new, remembered gate and the children in the apple tree . . . and the fire and the rose . . . and the Lady whose shrine stands on the promontory . . . and the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by St Luke by which all the diseases of our souls may be healed.’ Amen.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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