Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Luke is the “Ox” of the Evangelists

Today is the feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist and companion of Saint Paul during some of his missionary journeys. Luke is the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Iconography in the Western Church identifies Luke with an ox (often even with wings). 

This symbolism is based on the association of the four gospel writers with the “four living creatures” featured in the great visions of the Divine presence recounted in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. In both visions, the “living creatures” have faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. As early as Saint Irenaeus (second century) these faces were declared to be symbols of the evangelists. In the fourth century, Saint Jerome identified the “standard” references that are found in iconography and other sacred art thereafter: Matthew is the “man,” Mark is the “lion,” Luke is the “ox,” and John is the “eagle.” A variety of explanations are given in the accompanying homiletic tradition. It’s interesting to note the manner in which the four living creatures together have a cosmic significance, representing birds, wild and domesticated animals, and the human being (a “summary” of the whole animal creation). In the visions of both Ezekiel and John, they are extraordinary beings, with wings indicating the cherubim. Symbolically, the Evangelists can be associated with these heavenly images because they serve as Divinely inspired witnesses to the glory of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Why is Luke the ox? The general interpretation was that the ox is one of the animals of sacrifice, and Luke’s Gospel emphasizes Christ’s atonement sacrifice. Also, his Gospel begins (1:9) in the temple, where Zechariah the father of John the Baptist is serving as priest. It also ends in the temple (24:53), where the disciples gather to praise God after Jesus’s Ascension. 

These associations may seem “forced” to us, but the ancient Church had a rich awareness of the interrelationship of symbolism throughout the Scriptures and indeed all of creation, where everything pointed toward the centrality of the Word Incarnate (typology expresses this most precisely in the Bible, but the typological “style” extend the imagination to an overall allegorical vision of the whole universe). This is grounded in the sense that God “made himself at home” at the center of his creation, dwelling with humans in our history and in the midst of our ordinary (even impoverished) circumstances, as Saint Luke makes clear when he tells us that the Lord was born in a stable, where Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). 

Perhaps near that manger there was an ox… an ordinary ox on earth who for one night was in the presence of the definitive revelation of the Glory of God, dwelling with us as a newborn child, resting on the animals’ hay.

The images here are from medieval illuminated manuscripts, where Luke is either represented by the ox or is portrayed together with the ox.