St Luke, beloved of God

St Luke, Evangelist

On the eighteenth of October the Church celebrates the life and ministry of St Luke the Evangelist. Luke wrote not only the Gospel that bears his name, but also its continuation, the Acts of the Apostles; futhermore, he is said to have been a physician and one of St Paul’s fellow missionaries, a faithful companion until the latter’s martyrdom at Rome.

St Luke’s Gospel – the birth narrative of Our Lord in particular – is full of song: the Benedictus Dominus Deus, Magnificat, and Nunc dimittis, as well as the kernels of the Gloria in excelsis and Ave Maria, all come to us through Luke’s pen. These canticles naturally found a place in Christian worship, particularly at the Office (the Gloria was originally, and still is in the East, sung at the Office rather than the Mass, and accordingly is grouped with the canticles in the Hymnal 1982).

These canticles tie St Luke’s Gospel to the tradition of the Hebrew prophets from Deborah and Miriam up through Our Lord himself, not least in terms of the prophetic concern for the outcast and the underdog. Women, the poor and hungry, the young and the elderly, those otherwise outside power structures all figure prominently in Luke, and they are here in these texts, in which two old men, an old woman, and an unwed teenage mother sing of the Lord’s justice, mercy, liberation, and faithfulness.

But this connection to the Hebrew Scriptures is not limited to the canticles, nor to any particular aspect of St Luke’s Gospel, nor even to this Gospel alone; rather, as the Magnificat antiphon for his feast in the Sarum and other old Uses reminds us,

Sapientiam antiquorum exquisierunt sancti evangelistae
et prophetarum dictis narrationem suam confirmaverunt

The holy Evangelists sought out the wisdom of the ancients:
and by the Prophets’ sayings they corroborated their narrative.

Nevertheless St Luke is the most explicit of the Evangelists concerning his own reasons and process for writing (the ending of St John’s Gospel, and the explicit divine commands to write in the Revelation, notwithstanding):

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who...were eyewitnesses...I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you...

It is this prologue which lies behind the Sarum Psalm-antiphon for Second Vespers, part of a series of Psalm-antiphons for feasts of Evangelists largely comprising centos from Sirach (especially from chapters 44 and following, the portion in praise of the ancestors) and thus testimony to the habits of later composers of liturgical texts who too ‘inquired into the wisdom of the ancients and the prophets’ sayings’:

Dilecti Deo et hominibus sancti evangelistae
qui ornaverunt tempora Christi
bono odore
usque ad consummationem vitae.

This means something like

Beloved of God and of men are the holy Evangelists,
who set forth in order and in beauty the
[life and] times of Christ
as a fragrant offering,
all the way to the culmination
[or fulfillment] of [his?] life

but is difficult to translate elegantly on account of its several layers of scripture, translation, and meaning: a splendid example of the polyvalency of some of the great liturgical texts (including the Scriptures themselves), the attempt to untangle the meaning of which can be a fruitful spiritual exercise in itself.

The immediate sources are these, from the Vulgate translation of Sirach (note that the verse numbering varies in various translations and editions):

Dilectus Deo et hominibus Moyses...
     Si 45.1a

[David]...ornavit tempora usque ad consummationem vitae
     Si 47.12

The first phrase is clear enough. It is taken from an account of Moses, and perhaps echoes Rm 1.7, in which St Paul addresses his epistle to ‘all those who are at Rome, dear to God, called [to be] saints’.

Bono odore is no doubt taken from 2Co 2.14–15, which speaks of the odorem notitiae suae ‘fragrance [osmên] of the knowledge of [Christ]’ and bonus odor...Deo ‘sweet perfume [euôdia] to God’: a way of describing the joy of the believer and the concept of self-offering, incense being a token of prayer and oblation.

The rest is part of an account of David’s life and accomplishments:

he ordained the times
[of the festivals referred to in the previous line,
which appears in the next antiphon]
all the way to the end / fulfillment / completion of life.

The Latin ornavit (changed to plural ornaverunt in the antiphon, but also found as ordinaverunt in some MSS) translates the Greek ekósmêse. Both the Latin verbs and the Greek one mean both ‘to set in order’ and ‘to adorn’ (in fact ‘adorn’, ‘order’, ‘ordain’, ornare, ordinare, are all from the same root ordo, just as ‘cosmetic’ is related to kósmos, the root of the Greek verb in question). Perhaps the closest English word encompassing these meanings is ‘array’.

Consummatio means essentially what its English derivative does: ‘completion, consummation, culmination’; ‘end’ in the teleological sense (télos being the root of the Greek word in question, synteleía).

Vitae ‘of life’, however, is not found in the Greek original, and though the Greek mékhri synteleías likely means simply ‘for ever’, the Latin may refer more specifically to the end of David’s life (the lack of a determiner modifying vitae does not disqualify this meaning in Latin, which can be rather elliptical).

The antiphon futher complicates the matter by adding Christi ‘of Christ’; without a determiner, vitae may, again, simply mean ‘for ever’ (as in the Great Commission in St Matthew, usque ad consummationem saeculi ‘even unto the end / completion / fulfillment [synteleías again] of the age’), but may also mean ‘the end or culmination of Christ’s life’ – which is to say that the Gospels are complete accounts of the narrative [and purpose] of Christ’s life.

Given that this text occurs in the context of a saint’s feast day, however, we might even think of Ep 4.12: ad consummationem sanctorum ‘for the perfecting / complete furnishing / equipping [though this translates a different Greek word, katartismós] of the saints’.

Perhaps we can take it ultimately to mean ‘the Gospels were written, and endure, to the end that, or at which, life may find its fulfillment – which is, and is to be found in, the fulfillment of Christ’s life’.

It is this fulfillment which the Church celebrates in the lives of the saints: those who are able to discern the image and work of the Lord already in this life – and in the case of the Evangelists, to set it forth clearly for the rest of us – and thus at its end are well prepared to behold the glory of God unveiled. Therefore the Church sings

Beloved of God, and of humankind, are the holy Evangelists,
who arrayed the life of Christ with a lovely aroma,
even unto the culmination of this life.