“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures”
We have had occasion to remark upon the significance of St. Luke as the Church’s spiritual director for over half the year in terms of the quantity of the readings from his Gospel appointed to be read at Holy Communion. We have had occasion, too, to mention the quality of those readings, captured best, perhaps, in Dante’s evocative phrase about St. Luke as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, the scribe of the gentleness of Christ. How wonderful then that his feast day should fall upon a Sunday and command our attention in our weekly celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. That is, after all, the main focus of each Sunday’s worship. The intent is the deepening of our understanding of that fundamental mystery of Christian faith and identity.
Consider the Gospel reading from St. Luke appointed for today. “He opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.” But then, what is that understanding? “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name among the all nations.” Powerful words which provide us with a sense of the tenor of his Gospel. Death and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness. Could anything be more concise, more clear, and more complete?
We know precious little by way of biographical detail about St. Luke. As the Collect notes, his “praise is in the Gospel”, meaning that St. Luke is mentioned in the Scriptures of the New Testament, quite apart from the attribution of the third Gospel and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles to his mind and pen. Our Epistle reading specifically places him in the company of Paul. “Only Luke is with me,” he says in the context of a discourse about evangelism.
The Collect identifies St. Luke as both “an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul”. A healer, to be sure, but by way of something which must strike us as rather strange. The healing is by way of “the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him”. Healing by way of teaching? I wonder what sense we can make of that.
Health care and education are the two areas of the greatest concerns for contemporary culture. The traditions of medicine and education have been strongly and profoundly shaped by Christianity. Hospitals and schools in our western world have their roots and being in explicitly religious institutions arising out of the medieval European world, however much they have become secularised.
Our contemporary anxieties about health care and education arise from our confusion about two basic questions. What is health and what is the purpose of education? So long as we cling to our various secular assumptions about these things, we remain trapped in our confusions. If health is simply about the body without regard to some sense of human purpose and dignity, if education is but a means to an end, we miss out completely on the radical message of the Gospel and, especially, St. Luke, about health and teaching.
Both health and education in the religious understanding, especially in the Christian spiritual understanding, are about the soul and its relation to God. Thus the great medieval healing ministries are fundamentally acts of charity. There is no illusion about avoiding death. In a way, the healing ministry is about learning how to die without which one can hardly learn to live, about how to face suffering and death. Education, too, is about something more than acquiring the tools and the means to obtaining some sort of job or position of power or regard in the eyes of the world. In other words, we are not in pursuit of either health or learning so as to create some imaginary heaven on earth. Such are our modern illusions and idols. Death is in the picture, inescapably so, but even more what is in the picture is the reality of our being souls. Souls who have bodies, not bodies who have souls. This alters everything. To speak of ourselves as spiritual beings means to know ourselves as made in imago trinitatis, made in the image of the God who is Trinity, the mystery that is made known to us only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the mystery of the love that is God himself.
Charity is the moving principle of health care, or at least it should be. And charity, too, as St. Luke’s gospel so clearly shows us, is intimately connected to our understanding, to our coming to know what God wants us to know and without which we cannot truly live. It is captured, I think, in the scene which today’s gospel unfolds. Jesus speaking to the apostles sets the meaning of his life in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, of which the Psalms are the outstanding example in a kind of synecdoche (where the part stands for the whole).
“He opened their understanding”, an understanding which is intimately connected to the interpretation of the Scriptures. We find our wholeness and completeness in the Word of God and, especially, that Word made flesh, who died and rose again for us and whose grace lives in us through repentance and forgiveness. These are the themes of St. Luke’s teaching. As one of our hymns puts it:
O happy saint! Whose sacred page,
So rich in words of truth and love,
Pours on the Church from age to age
This healing unction from above (# 206, The Hymn Book)
Repentance and forgiveness are the forms of death and resurrection in us by the grace of Christ in his Word. They are the signal notes of the witness of St. Luke, “evangelist and physician of the soul”. Repentance and forgiveness carry over into our approaches to healing and teaching. We are obliged to think about one another in relation to God, as beings who are immortal souls.
Ours is the culture of illusions, the culture of death, as Chris Hedges notes in his book “Empire of Illusions: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle”. The celebration of the witness of St. Luke provides the necessary counter to our morbid anxieties and deadly follies. It recalls us to the primacy of our lives as spiritual beings and thus frees us to a new and different relation to the world in which we live.
Perhaps, nowhere is that new and different relation illustrated more clearly than in this morning’s Gospel. The apostles encounter the Risen Christ who in their presence ascends to heaven. Note the creedal or doctrinal elements of his Gospel. On his command, they, then, return to Jerusalem. To do what? To build a better world? No. “They returned to Jerusalem with joy and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.”
The tragedy of our culture is that we insist on measuring everything by our worldly pursuits, to things which by their very nature are always passing away like autumn leaves scattered by the wind. The paradox of the Gospel is that we only contribute to a better world by living better lives. And that can only be by way of repentance and forgiveness becoming the patterns and realities of our lives.
It can’t happen without our attention and presence in the place where God is worshipped and glorified. It also can’t happen without the charity of Christ being carried from the altar in us, as it were, and out into our daily lives. Both are necessary, inescapably so. It is the necessity of the interplay of the teaching and the healing becoming more and more the very fabric of our lives. This remains the task of the Church, a task which remains to be recovered if not discovered in our own day.
We have forgotten the radical meaning of such powerful spiritual forces as repentance and forgiveness, spiritual realities which can never be measured or understood by any worldly yardstick and yet convict the conscience of every age and every soul. They are the spiritual realities that belong to the discovery and the renewed understanding that we are souls and that we have an end with God whose charity teaches and heals us.
St. Luke points us to Jesus, the great teacher and healer of our souls. The name ‘Jesus’ means Saviour or healer and it belongs to St. Luke to emphasize precisely that understanding. He serves to recall us to Christ, the teacher and healer of our souls. Will we learn and be healed?
“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures”
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church, Windsor
St. Luke/Trinity XIX, ‘09