Through the gospel of St. Luke

Published 2:57 pm Friday, January 22, 2010

“The beginning of the gospel according to St. Luke”—That is the significant way in which the liturgy announced our third reading for today.

By it, we are reminded, that with this gospel page we enter upon what is called “the year of Luke”—a year in which the readings for all the Sundays of ordinary time will lead us through this entire gospel from beginning to end. As the year progresses, you can look forward to hearing again many of your very favorite scriptural readings. But, unfortunately, because they are spread over so many months, we get the gospel piecemeal—in weekly segments and so cannot really appreciate the carefully crafted way in which the evangelist tells his story of Jesus.

In preparing this homily, it occurred to me that it would be spiritually rewarding to say something about the special character and purpose of the gospel as a whole and to point out some of its special excellences—things to be aware of as Sunday after Sunday we find so many reasons why this is truly the Gospel—the Good News that St. Luke has shared with us.

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We begin by answering the question: What do we know about the author himself?

Although there is no place in the text where he identifies himself by name, his sequel to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, supplies us with important information about him.

The apostle, St. Paul, gives us his name, calling him, “Luke, my dear physician.” We know that he was the apostle’s close friend and companion on at least one of his missionary tours. He was of Greek rather than Jewish origin, a convert from paganism, obviously well educated, writing with great literary skill, drawing not on his own memories of Jesus but rather gathering together the eyewitness accounts treasured in the Christian communities and organizing them into a continuous narrative.

An ancient tradition identifies him as an artist. And certainly the word-picture he paints of Jesus is a true masterpiece.

Luke is obviously a person who has been captivated by the Person of Our Lord, not only as the Incarnate Son of God and our Savior, but also the fascinating Humanity of Jesus, perfectly human as He is perfectly divine.

What are some of the special discoveries about Our Lord that reward our reading of his fascinating account?

Story of joy

To begin with, more than any other gospel, the prevailing mood of his Jesus-story is joy. From first page to last, joy is the golden thread that binds his story together. He begins with the account of the Archangel Gabriel’s message to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, telling him: “You will have joy and gladness” at the unexpected birth of his son.

When the heavenly messenger comes to Mary of Nazareth, again the first word is joyous: “Rejoice, highly favored daughter, the Lord is with you.”

He is the only one of the evangelists who remembers for us the lovely details of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem and the message of the angels to the shepherds: “Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy.”

When, later on in Luke’s story, the disciples return from their first assignment, announcing the “day of salvation” and preparing the way for Jesus, Luke tells us that their hearts were overflowing with great joy. After Our Lord’s ascension into heaven, again it is Luke who tells us that “the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”

And always, in this gospel, the reason for the joy is to be found in Our Lord. Luke shows us Jesus as the Human Expression of the Divine Compassion. Beginning with today’s reading Our Lord lays claim to the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”

In this gospel, Jesus’ most characteristic gesture is that wide-armed welcome: “Come to me, all you who labor and find life a heavy burden. … You will find rest for your souls.”

It is Luke who gives us the parable of the prodigal son and Luke who tells the story of the Good Shepherd, seeking out the sheep that was lost and carrying it safely home rejoicing.

It is only in this gospel that we hear the cry of the thief crucified beside Jesus on Calvary: “Lord, remember me.” And Jesus’ reply: “Amen I say to you, this very day you will be with me in paradise.”

More about Luke

Only Luke recalls for us Our Lord’s prayer for his murderers: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” This is the Jesus we find in these inspired pages—His gentleness, His patience, His ready forgiveness, His understanding of human weakness, His sympathy for the hurting and the lonely … all those wonderful qualities that are part of Luke’s composite picture.

Other discoveries await us: Luke’s gospel has been called the first Christian prayer book.

At the very beginning, he gives us the beautiful prayer of Zachariah, celebrating the birth of John the Baptist and a few pages further, we find the prayer of the Virgin Mary, hymning the joy of her Motherhood, the prayer we know as The Magnificat.

Only in Luke do we hear the witness of Holy Simeon and his prayer of grateful praise as he holds in his arms the Infant Jesus: “Now, Lord, dismiss your servant in peace.”

In this gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, not just by word but even more by example. He shows us Our Lord at prayer before every important step in His ministry, from His baptism in the Jordan to His anguished prayer in Gethsemani and his final words from the Cross on Calvary.

Yet another special feature of this gospel. Nowhere do women claim so prominent and so honored a place as they do here. Throughout his gospel, Luke balances every male scene with a female one, and more often than not, it is the women who show the greater faith and love. He remembers, for example, the tears of the women on the Calvary road and that other groups of women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and were there, outnumbering the apostles near the cross of Jesus. And it is to the holy women, there beside the empty tomb that the angels first tell the great good news of the risen Christ.

A final debt we owe to Luke.

His gospel is the richest source of Marian devotion. With the exception of Matthew’s account of the Magi and the flight into Egypt and John’s mention of Mary at the foot of the Cross, everything we know about the Mother of Jesus, we find in this gospel. Just to enumerate those familiar feasts we commemorate in the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary: The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Birth at Bethlehem, the Presentation of the Child Jesus and the Finding of the Lost Boy: All these we find here—only in Luke!

How impoverished would our devotion be without him!

The great scripture scholar, William Barclay, speaks of St. Luke’s gospel as “the loveliest book in the world.”

And he goes on to say: “It would not be far wrong to say that the third gospel is the best life of Christ ever written.”

“The world’s loveliest book”.

“The very best Life of Our Lord.” High praise indeed!

In these inspired pages, we find a treasure beyond compare. The year 2010 that lies ahead, we can look forward to claiming the treasure for our own.