Saint Luke: A Gospel of Icons

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OCTOBER 18
SAINT LUKE, EVANGELIST

2 Timothy 4: 10-17a
Psalm 144: 10-11, 12-13ab, 17-18 (R: cf. 12)
Luke 10:1-9

The Evangelist

Saint Luke comes to us today as the evangelist of the Holy Spirit, as the evangelist of the little and of the poor, the evangelist of the Virgin Mary, and of the holy angels. He comes to us as the iconographer of the healing Christ, the physician of our souls and bodies. He comes to us as the advocate and friend of the women disciples of the Lord, and as the witness of the Acts of the Apostles and of the life of the infant Church. He comes to us as the poet of the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis, as the evangelist of the sacred liturgy, the one who closes his Gospel with the radiant image of a joyful Church semper in templo benedicentes Deum, “continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk 24:52).

Iconographer of the Holy Mother of God

According to an old tradition, Saint Luke, in addition to being a physician (Col 4:14), was a painter. It is recounted that Saint Luke depicted the Virgin Mother with the Infant Christ in three icons. He showed them to her. The Mother of God looked at them with joy and then blessed them, saying, “May the grace of Him to Whom I gave birth be within them.” The iconography of Saint Luke himself makes for a fascinating study; he is nearly always portrayed painting the Blessed Virgin and her Son. Paintings of a saint painting!

Saint Luke at the Cross

I know also of one painting of Saint Luke, different from all others and profoundly moving. It is by the Spanish artist Francisco Zurbaràn and dates from 1660. Zurbaràn shows Saint Luke standing on Calvary; he is holding one of his paintings in his hands and contemplating Jesus Crucified with rapt attention. Clearly, he is memorizing the scene so as to depict it in a painting, just as he depicts it in his Gospel.

A Rosary of Icons

Open the Gospel of Saint Luke and what do you see? Icons of the Virgin Mother and the Child Christ, of the healing Christ, of Christ in prayer, of the suffering Christ, of the Crucified Christ, and of the mysterious risen Christ appearing on the road to Emmaus. These Gospel icons written by Saint Luke with an extraordinary spiritual sensitivity, invite us to the contemplation of the Face of Christ in much the same way, as do the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.

The Lectio Divina of the Icon

Irish Benedictine Dom Gregory Collins has written an extraordinary little book on icons: “The Icons and Lectio Divina: Ancient and Post Modern Insights.” Dom Gregory applies the four moments of lectio divina to the practice of prayer before an icon. Lectio becomes a reading of the imagery, an attempt to “receive” the message it expresses through colour and form.

Meditatio takes the images received and turns them over in the mind; it can also mean focusing on a single detail of the icon: the face, the eyes, a hand, a gesture. Meditatio before an icon allows one to linger for a long time in the transforming presence of the light of God. “We all,” says Saint Paul, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

Oratio is the prayer that, like a flame, shoots up in the heart. Gazing upon the icon, like repeating the sacred text, feeds the flame of oratio. Finally, one is surprised by a holy stillness. The “fiery darts of prayer” are absorbed into something more obscure: contemplatio. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

Dom Gregory’s insights may help us to read the Gospel of Saint Luke more deeply, searching on each page for the icon that slowly emerges from between the lines and behind the words, becoming visible to the eyes of faith. “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me” (Ps 26:8-9).

We Become What We Contemplate

Philosophers, psychologists and saints all agree that we become what we contemplate. Look at goodness and you will become good. Look at beauty and you will become beautiful. Look at truth and you will become true. Saint Clare of Assisi, herself so marked by Gospel of Saint Luke, wrote to Agnes of Prague: “Gaze upon Him, consider Him, contemplate Him, as you desire to imitate Him” (Second Letter to Agnes of Prague).

Contemplating the Mysteries With Saint Luke

Understood in this way, the contemplation of the “icons” of Saint Luke’s Gospel, especially through the prayer of the Rosary, is transforming. The Rosary is, I have always believed, a uniquely Lukan prayer. Look at Saint Luke’s icon of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26 38) and, with Mary, become “Yes” to the Word. Look at the Visitation (Lk 1:39 56) and learn the language of Mary’s praise. Look at the Child lying in the manger (Lk 2:16) and become little and poor.

Look at the merciful Christ (Lk 4:40 – 5:26) and become merciful; at the healing Christ (Lk 7:1-10) and become an instrument of healing; at the solitary Christ in prayer (Lk 11:1), and learn to converse with the Father.

Look at the icon of Christ in Gethsemane (Lk 22:39-46), agonizing and comforted by an angel, and enter into his submission to the Father’s will. Look at the crucified Christ (Lk 23:33-47) and learn from him to forgive and to show mercy, even in the hour of darkness. Look at the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32) and know that he walks with you always, opening the Scriptures, breaking the Bread, causing your hearts to burn with a mysterious fire. Finally, look at the icon of the Church in the last sentence of Saint Luke’s Gospel — “They were continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk 24:53) — and learn to bless God always and everywhere, learn to give the last word to praise.

To the Altar

And now, it is time to go to the altar to do just that: to bless. The transformation that begins in the contemplation of Saint Luke’s Rosary of Gospel icons is perfected, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the Eucharist.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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