A View from the Sacristy: St. Luke the Evangelist Through the Symbol of the Ox
March 8, 2017 § 1 Comment
This week I want to explore Luke the evangelist through the symbol of the ox.
In the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul it seems that an “evangelist” was, in the early days of the Church, a traveling missionary who went about preaching the Gospel, the account describing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They often had a certain talent in preaching, and so would bring people to the faith and, once in the Christian community, the teachers and pastors would take on the work of explaining the mysteries of the faith. By the 2nd century, an “evangelist” came to mean what it means today – one of the writers of the four canonical Gospels.
In the first chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, and the fourth chapter of the Revelation to John, we can find the description of a vision of the Holy One. In the vision from Ezekiel, there are four living creatures who draw the chariot of God and have fantastic form: human, but with four wings and four faces: a human face, a lion’s face, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle. In the vision from Revelation, the four living creatures have one face, and six wings with eyes all around, even under the wings. The Christian community took these four living creatures as symbols of the four evangelists and their associated Gospels. In the Christian West, these symbols for the Evangelists were well established by the 4th century since St Jerome speaks of them in his Commentary on Matthew; although not everyone agrees with Jerome’s symbols, they are the most accepted interpretation.
The four living creatures are also symbolic of the message of the specific Gospels for which they have become the symbol: The human as a symbol for the Gospel of Matthew suggests that this Gospel stresses Christ’s humanity with its genealogy and its Jesus who reacts in very human ways. The lion associated with the Gospel of Mark is appropriate since this Gospel begins with a “voice crying in the wilderness,” just a a lion would roar, and it also speaks to resurrection. There was an ancient belief that lions were born dead and brought to life by the growling and caresses of their mothers, and the Gospel of Mark concludes with the resurrection of Jesus. The ox associated with the Gospel of Luke fits well since it speaks to the great sacrifice of Jesus, and the ox was an important animal for sacrifice as required in the Torah. The eagle associated with the Gospel of John speaks to the heavenly Jesus that has come from the Father to dwell on earth and who will one day return to the Father
There is another traditional way to look at the four symbols of the evangelists, where the symbols are the height of creation in their different species: human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and so are the height of creation; the lion is the best of the wild animals and often called the King of Beasts; the ox is the beast of sacrifice and the most revered of the domestic animals; and the eagle is the best of the bird kingdom.
At St Luke’s we have St Luke’s ox on many of our sacred objects. Many of the oxen are very small and might never be noticed with a casual glance. Some are big and bold – the St Luke’s banner is the image of a gold-winged ox and is very large; we use this banner on St Luke’s Day.
The processional cross used during Lent has the symbols of the evangelists on the ends of the bars of the cross. We never really see these, as it is always covered by the Lenten Array when used at services. The large silver salver that we use to bring the offerings to the altar during the 11:15 Rite II Choral Eucharist on Sundays and on major feast days has the evangelists symbols on the rim (ask one of the ushers, but you’ll have to wait until Eastertide as we do not use this plate during Lent).
The festive Gospel Book cover (it shines like gold!) also has the four evangelists’ symbols on it, and we use this on feast days and the Great 50 Days of Easter (something else to look forward to seeing!).
The symbols of the evangelists also appear on the John Walsted icon processional cross we use during most of the year, Luke’s ox is right below Christ’s left hand (and again, you will have to wait until the Sunday after Ascension Day to see this ox).
Stay tuned and WATCH THIS SPACE for more tales of our patron Saint! We’re going to have a walk around the chapel next time! For Luke, actually, is all around.
– Sean Scheller