The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke and Iconography

A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church on the Feast of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, Sunday, Oct. 18, 7530 (Oct. 31, 2021, civil calendar).

Today we commemorate the Feast of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, who is shown in the icon before us working on the writing of his Gospel, with the symbol of a winged calf above him. That symbol is one of the four winged creatures in Ezekiel and one of the four beasts in Revelation perpetually singing the Trisagion prayer. St Gregory the Dialogist and the Church identify the Calf or Ox with the Evangelist Luke and also with the virtue of sacrifice and service, and with the Incarnation and Crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Luke begins with an account of the Priest Zacharias, including the setting of the Temple where sacrifices occurred, and ends of course with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion and then his Resurrection and Ascension. The Evangelist Luke himself was especially a servant of the Lord whom the Church identifies as one of the Seventy and who also is known as the beloved physician and a patron of healers. He became especially close according to Church Tradition to the Apostle Paul in his missionary journeys, who like Luke was not one of the original 12, although both Luke and Paul are numbered among the Apostles by the Church.

Luke is also identified by Church Tradition as the first iconographer, that was part of his service to our Lord and His Church as well. He painted an image of the Holy Mother of God in her lifetime, and two other icons of her, as well as panels of the Apostles Peter and Paul, according to Church Tradition. The Theotokos it is recorded said to him of his iconography: “May the grace of Him who was born of me be upon this image.” This icon of the Theotokos holding the Christ child, called the Hodegetria or Directress, because she is pointing to Jesus, was sent from Palestine to Constantinople later by the Empress Eudocia, where it was a prime icon of veneration until supposedly destroyed by the Turks, although some Russian traditions maintain it was moved and preserved at Smolensk until destroyed in the burning of that city during the Nazi invasion. In any case, many copies and types of it were made and venerated, which also survived the earlier disaster of Iconoclasm within the Church and the Byzantine empire in Late Antiquity.

Of course Luke also wrote the Gospel and also the Acts of the Apostles, and the Lives of the Saints have been described as a continuation of the Acts by St. Luke. As the Apostle Paul wrote “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.” The Acts of the Apostles, and their extension in the Lives of the Saints down to our time, and the iconography of the Church begun by St. Luke with the blessing of the Theotokos, these all help us however unworthily with God’s grace and ascetic struggle to imitate the holy ones who themselves imitate Christ. This is the golden link so to speak of service and sacrifice in the life and work and example of the Apostle Luke, which connects integrally his life, his writing, and his iconography.

There are some details of the life of the Apostle about which various early sources differ, but what is certain is that his life really began, like ours, with his decision to follow Jesus Christ. He accompanied Paul on some of his mission journeys and remained in Philippi and Macedon to help build up the early Church. Then he went to Rome with the Apostle Paul, where according to some traditions he wrote the Gospel and Apostles. His Gospel has a special emphasis on the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ as the Great Physician. After the martyrdom of the Apostle Paul, St. Luke returned to his work in Greece, where he himself was martyred according to tradition at the age of 84, flayed alive and crucified on an olive tree by idolaters. Long afterward his relics were placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople.

The integral relation between the Apostle Luke’s inspired writing and the lives of the saints and iconography, in the example of holiness given to us in the Church, shines forth in an icon very close to us in time and experience here today in our mission in central Pennsylvania. Many of us have venerated with joy and reverence the myrrh-streaming Iveron icon of the Most Holy Mother of God from Hawaii, at our Cathedral in Mayfield, PA. This is a copy of the miraculous myrrh-streaming Montreal icon, in the style of the Apostle Luke’s work. On this same day today, the Feast of St. Luke, is commemorated the martyric death of the keeper of the Montreal icon and the disappearance of that icon, in 1997 in Athens. Tragically, José Muñoz, now known as Brother Jose, was tortured and killed ,and the icon stolen, apparently by a gang of robber, in what an investigation by Archpriest Victor Potapov of ROCOR concluded was a type of martyrdom, Our diocesan website has this statement:

“What led to the murder of Brother Jose and this holy image being hidden from us? This question was answered by the hierarchs of ROCOR in 2002, in a special “Appeal to the Flock on the 20th anniversary of the Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon of the Mother of God of Montreal:” “This icon, which abundantly streamed miracle-working myrrh for 15 years, consoled our Russian [Church Abroad], a visible and tangible symbol of the mercy of the intercession of the Mother of God for us sinners… Did we act in a worthy manner during the presence in our Church of this Icon, which clearly performed miracles? Did we put to good use this visitation of the Mother of Our Lord for our souls, and is it not our collective sin of having grown cold towards this holy Icon and in our prayers, cold to the works of charity and witness to the Orthodox faith, that was the reason for its disappearance, through God’s will With tremulous gratitude we prayerfully recall the arrival of this wondrous myrrh-streaming Icon in our Church, and with repentance we pray to the Most Holy Mother of God for the forgiveness of our transgressions, for peace to reign in our Orthodox Church…”

God in His goodness and mercy has allowed the Hawaiian copy to stream myrrh since, to bring consolation to us. Brothers and Sisters, on this Feast of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, and remembering on this day the death of Brother Jose and of the disappearance of the Montreal Iverson icon of God, let us re-dedicate ourselves to our baptism and to our experience of the wonder-working Hawaiian copy of that icon at our Cathedral and elsewhere in its travels. Let us with gratitude for the examples of holiness all around us in our mission Church icons and in the Scriptures we hear, ask for the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God and of St. Luke, that our hearts be warmed and that we be forgiven our transgressions and that we move forward with our mission work here in our valley, to help bring the message of salvation to our friends and enemies and strangers in need. May the Lord God strengthen our efforts and have mercy on us for our sins. Amen

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