24 October 2011

Beneath the Bond Between Luke the Evangelist and Norman Rockwell

(Dedicated to my friend Skye, the doctor.)

Just the other day, I sat myself down and went paging through a collection of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. In that painted parade of American history, I met every sort of person, brush-captured from every station of life. For it wasn’t only caroling children and Coca-Cola-drinking Santa Clauses inhabiting those tableaus, but bed-ridden seniors and hotel maids as well, and all of them portrayed with such a stroke of fellow-feeling that it was as though the artist were winking and saying, "Yes, I know these people are imperfect, but still, oh, how delightful!"

It was in their eyes. In illustration after illustration, they positively glowed off the page, advertising that beneath whatever mischief their owner was into, there dwelt a self-aware soul. As I thought about it afterward, this collection of a lifetime’s worth of painting left me with a singular impression: Norman Rockwell loved people.

Some time later, I set that book aside and turned to the opening sentence from the Gospel of Luke in the original Greek, where I refreshed my acquaintance with the man whom Paul names in Colossians 4:14 as the beloved physician. Here’s a translation which keeps the good doctor’s 42-word opening sentence intact:

Inasmuch as many have taken it in hand to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, and just as they, who,  from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, also handed down to us, it seemed good also to me, having followed everything closely from the beginning, to write to you precisely and methodically, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may recognize something in the matters of which you were instructed: certainty.

The tricky thing about translating a text from one language to another is not in bringing out the original's bare message, but the author’s unique way of communicating that message: his voice. I have tried to do that here. And make no mistake: despite the common message shared between the four Gospels, Luke does have his own unique voice.
Mark was a fireside storyteller. John was an aphoristic sage. But Luke was a Greek physician: educated, thoughtful, and rooted to the evidence. All of this is reflected in a literary style that is careful, precise and more than a little verbose. You can see it in his use of the word eyewitnesses, which shows his respect for evidence, and the phrase, from the beginning, which shows his respect for method. You see, Luke is interested in grounding his understanding of reality not in superstition, nor in emotion, but in an inductively pursued investigation.

Take, for example, Luke’s description of the resurrected Jesus eating physical food; He is the only one of the four evangelists to do so, and the reason is clear: as an educated Greek, he is at pains to give evidence that our Lord’s resurrected body is neither illusion nor apparition: it is physical. Given his vocation, it isn’t surprising that our doctor should also write in greater detail about Jesus’ miraculous acts of healing, since he had the most extensive experience of such ailments. 

Like any man of healing, Luke would, in the course of his profession, have encountered all manner of infirmity, suffered by all manner of humanity.  

You can see it in his motley collage of men and women who encountered our Lord: from centurions and tax-collectors all the way down to lepers, widows, and the criminal on the cross. Reading through this Gospel, it is as though the doctor is saying, “this one too was beloved of our Lord; yes, this one too, and this one, and this one, and this one...” Taken together, the impression one gets of the doctor after reading his Gospel biography is rather the same as that of Norman Rockwell: Luke loved people.

Just feel the warmth coming off the page when he pens Jesus’ assurance to the man next to him on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” And that word, truly, brings me to my point, and indeed, to the point of Luke’s entire Gospel. Like any good doctor with compassion for his patients, our beloved physician has embedded a medicine in his Gospel, a cure-all for the rich and poor alike.

What is the name of this elixir? He gives it to us in his opening prescription’s final word. This is why he wrote, and this is why we read. So pick it up for yourself, read through this Greek physician’s Gospel, and see if the medicine doesn’t take. See if you don't find your mind set at ease by the good doctor's remedy, which he called certainty.


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