Before the basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls stands the imposing marble figure of Paul, his fiery eyes looking down upon the pilgrim and his hand firmly gripping the sword that brought about his death and symbolizes the Word he preached. As the visitor’s eyes look past the towering effigy towards the façade of the church, the symmetry of the scene is noticeably broken. There are two pedestals at the opposite ends of the portico guarding the entrance to the building. The northern pedestal is vacant while the southern is occupied by a standing figure holding a stylus and scroll in his hands, with an ox resting at his feet: the evangelist St. Luke.
It would be tempting to think that the missing statue is an oversight by the architect or was simply never finished until one recalls St. Paul’s mournful words: “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim 4:11). Before we solve the mystery of the empty pedestal, let us first consider what we know of St. Luke’s life and explore some of the themes from his gospel and its sequel the Acts of the Apostles.
The third gospel has traditionally been ascribed to St. Luke. As with the other canonical gospel writers, there is little known about his life. That he may have hailed from Antioch in Syria is suggested by his reference to Quirinus the governor of Syria in his infancy narrative (cf. Lk 2:2). It is unclear if Luke was a pagan who had converted to Judaism and then ultimately to Christianity or if he was a pagan who converted directly to Christianity. Before Luke became an evangelist he was trained in the art of medicine, for St. Paul refers to him as “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14), a fact which may help us to appreciate his gospel’s emphasis on mercy.
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There is a later tradition that St. Luke was also an artist. He is said to have painted at least seven images of the Blessed Mother, with whom he spent time while interviewing witnesses for his gospel. His artistic touch, which is elegant, captivating, and simple, manifests itself in his portrayal of the scenes of Christ’s life. For example, the story of the Christ Child’s birth is less than 150 words long, yet Luke’s telling has stamped itself on the imagination of Christian history and practice since it was composed. So influential is his gospel that many of the scenes he narrates have been enshrined in Christian memory. The parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, found only in his gospel, are excellent examples of the power of his words. Not only the stories of Luke’s gospel but the canticles too have established themselves in the daily and weekly liturgical life of the Church throughout the ages—the Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Gloria, the Nunc Dimittis.
A central focus of Luke’s gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation history. God’s redemption of humanity includes everyone, not just the select nation of Israel. This is one of the reasons Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the father of the human race. Of course, Luke lends special significance to the inclusion of the goyim because he himself was a Gentile. In fact, he is the only non-Israelite to compose a book, two in fact, included in the canon of Scripture.
The companion piece to Luke’s gospel is the Acts of the Apostles. Each of his books illuminates the other. They are both addressed to the same person, Theophilus, and are about the same Person, Jesus Christ. The gospel clearly focuses on the historical life and ministry of Jesus, what Acts of the Apostles describes as “all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up” to heaven in the Ascension (Acts 1:1-2). Acts continues the story of Jesus’ work in the world through the lives and ministry of His apostles and disciples, the Church. Just as Jesus preached, healed, and cast out demons, so the followers of Jesus preach, heal, and cast out demons in the chronicle of the early Church. The narrative action in Luke’s gospel begins, ends, and centers on the city of Jerusalem because this is where God will save His people. While Acts begins in Jerusalem, the action quickly moves outwards from that city towards Rome, the capital city of the empire. God’s message of salvation is not only meant for Israel but needs to be brought to the whole world.
The apostle most known in the early Church for bringing the gospel to the “ends of the earth” is St. Paul. His story and famous conversion scene is related three times in Acts and the second half of the book, chapters 13-28, centers on this apostle. Just as St. Mark used St. Peter’s preaching in Rome as the foundation of his gospel, so it is believed that St. Luke principally used the preaching of St. Paul for his gospel.
We do not know how or where Paul and Luke met but we know they remained close friends and fellow workers throughout their lives. St. Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, beautifully describes Luke as Paul’s “constant companion and fellow traveler” and also claims that Luke was “inseparable” from Paul. As even a casual reader of the Acts of the Apostles notices, the narrative shifts from third person singular to first person plural at certain points in the text, beginning with Paul’s vision in Troy of a Macedonian man inviting Paul to preach the gospel there: “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia” (Acts 16:10). Luke accompanied Paul on several of his missionary adventures; Acts almost seems like Luke’s travel journal from these trips. This includes the voyage to Rome, while Paul is in chains, for his first imprisonment in the capital. Acts ends in Rome with Paul under house arrest, “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:31).
Paul never worked alone in proclaiming the good news, but he always had many companions throughout his ministry who he considered his “co-workers.” Notable among them is a man named Demas, who in Paul’s letters is always listed alongside Luke: “Demas and Luke, my fellow workers” (Phlm 24), “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you” (Col 4:14). It is intriguing that Luke’s name is mentioned three times in the New Testament and each time Demas is named as well. We do not know anything about Demas except for these few references to him as a fellow collaborator in the mission field.
The third and final reference to both Demas and Luke is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Demas has abandoned Paul and the mission. This formerly faithful friend, according to Paul, was too much “in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim 4:10).
The man who once announced the truth has now renounced the Truth. But, Paul continues, “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim 4:11).
Unlike Demas, who was too much in love with the world, Luke loved the Lord who created and redeemed that world. He both wrote truly about Jesus and remained true to Him in his life. This is why the architect left the pedestal empty at the Roman basilica of St. Paul. It was meant for Demas. Today, however, it is “Luke alone” who stands with Paul outside the ancient shrine.