I’ve spent a good deal of time this year sheltering with my icons.
Saints, Apostles, Holy Events, Our Lord Jesus, the Holy Family, the Holy Trinity, all cover my walls in my home office, a veritable cloud of witnesses to the love of God.
And when I sing the Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the Creed, even the Our Father, along with my virtual chapel congregations during a Sunday Holy Liturgy, I let my eye rest on these golden images. They comfort, strengthen, enable. They pull me into their stories as I sing the words of the stories.
For that is what the Creator does, he shines golden light on his Creation, making each of us shine too, shining light in turn on others and other created matter.
Like my hermit on Angel Mountain, I am called through these doors into another world, a more real world, one that makes the ordinary world of matter more real too. Unlike the wraiths from Hell in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, where they find upon their visit to Heaven they cannot walk on the too real grass with their flimsy see-through spirits. They have not been made real enough to partake of this greater reality. As I recall, the blades of grass are like knife blades, hurting the feet of these flimsy creatures.
Do we want to experience life more fully, see colors more vividly, love with greater selflessness? We can if we become Christians and allow God to remold our souls, and often, bodies.
Our journey to Heaven as we travel through Earthly time, heading for Eternity, is a journey that prepares us for this greater Reality. We are weak and frail, but Christ feeds us and strengthens us.
Today is St. Luke’s Day, and we recall and celebrate the evangelist who wrote the third Gospel. We heard about him today in our virtual sermons, but what I think of most of the time in regards to Luke is the Christmas narrative in Chapter 2. It is said that Luke received the account from Mary herself, and that he painted her image several times.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” Christmas after Christmas, the children lined up in the narthex of our local parish, dressed in robes and sandals and head scarves, carrying stuffed lambs, arranging glittery sashes over white smocks with matching halo crowns. They would process up the aisle to the chancel in their turn, first the prophets prophesying, then Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, then lo and behold, a child is born and placed in the straw manger basket. Angels enter, carrying a giant bright star that leads shepherds and kings to the stable-cave.
In our tradition we use the classic King James translation, and the narrators speak the words to the congregation with great joy and reverence as though offering words of gold, poetic beauties, on this cold Sunday, days after the winter solstice. And all the while, the congregation sings well known carols, welcoming the little players in this giant pageant.
And so I am fond of Luke who traveled with Paul, preaching the Gospel, as described in his book, Acts of the Apostles.
Tradition holds that Luke painted an icon of Mary holding her Holy Child, and of the three images surviving, one is in the Basilica of Mary Maggiore in Rome. We have visited often. There is a side chapel in the transept, home to this image which rests high above the altar. The great Marian shrine is one of the historic pilgrimage churches, and when we entered the giant space, we often heard singing coming from this side chapel. We would follow the song – usually an Ave Maria as well as other tunes – stepping silently up the central aisle, turning left at the transept and peering into the side chapel, full of pilgrims. We would enter, kneel in the back, and say a silent prayer of thanksgiving. The pilgrims were most often from other countries, and often from America, school children and choirs that have laced their Rome journey with a necklace of spontaneous song. It was a great privilege to experience this again and again.
There is a second image that Luke painted that is said to be in Bologna, and I believe a third in Constantinople (Istanbul), said to have been lost. The one in Bologna is in its own shrine outside the city on a hill, and I recall a colonnaded walkway that connected the shrine and the city. Each year a procession formed and winded its way to the shrine, singing. We were never able to be part of this, but the image is encouraging and lingers in my memory.
One of our preachers this morning said that St. Luke is credited with painting the Our Lady of Vladimir image of Mary as well as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
So Luke is artist and author, one that sought to celebrate this great intersection of time and eternity.
The Church has been given a magnificent patrimony in both faith and art, gifts that make reality more real. For by expanding our sight into another dimension, through words and image, we become closer reflections of the Divine. We are made in the image of God – every one of us. And we are pulled into this Divine Image by our own creation, by partaking of the sacraments, by breathing the Holy Spirit into our lungs as we breathe the name of Jesus, by sharing with others made in His image how beautiful each person is.
We are in a time of great national peril, a time when these gifts may be threatened, a time when we may have to celebrate our Lord of Eternity in a hidden chapel tomb as the first Christians did. I hope and pray this is not the case. Today is a time to speak and to warn, to fall on our knees before God in chapel or procession, virtual or physical, and pray for our country and the Western tradition that guards its faith and freedoms.
We must not be muzzled by masks – by lies masked as truth, by hate masked as love. St. Luke wrote and painted and encouraged the telling of this great good news, nothing less than the story of our redemption. Thank you, St. Luke.