Saint Luke’s Passion

That Mel Gibson did not write the Gospel According to Saint Luke will be evident from reading it. The atmosphere is radically different from that in Gibson’s own passion play (or rather, movie), even though the facts are of a piece.

Reading Saint Luke’s Passion, through the medium of a missal, for this Wednesday in Holy Week: “But they were instant with loud voices, requiring that He might be crucified. And their voices prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.”

This English translation (in my St Andrew’s Missal for the Old Mass) seems to convey the tone of the Latin, as the Latin the tone of the Greek. It is a bit awkward. I don’t think the original is quite so lawyerly as that. Rather there is an elegance matching that serene tone, which seems the natural development of the Canticles that this poet among the Evangelists gave in his version of events.

It is a mystery to me why the great composers have left St Luke’s Passion largely alone. There is a manuscript for it in J.S. Bach’s own handwriting, but the score is by some lesser composer. Felix Mendelssohn famously offered to hang himself if it was really by Bach, on the strength of one chorale.

Penderecki’s setting from the 1960s, with its massed atonal forces, has been pronounced very moving by many modern auditors. But with Horace, I’d say there’s no accounting for their taste.

Again, what is seldom attempted, let alone captured, is that mysteriously reticent quality in Luke, or to put it differently, his melodious piping, as if he were not so much telling the narrative, as playing an accompaniment to it. Perhaps it is too musical in itself to want musical setting.

Thus, to my mind, it is perfectly placed in the traditional procession of the Passions through Holy Week, as a kind of prelude to the full Tenebrae – thus described, I think rather brilliantly, by the musical director in my own Toronto parish: “Tenebrae means Darkness. This Liturgy comprises Matins and Lauds for Holy Thursday. It was traditionally done on Wednesday night, originally late enough to be getting done on Thursday. Fifteen candles on a hearse, and six on the altar, are extinguished, one by one, in the course of the recitation of the psalms. So that by the time the Allegri Miserere is sung, the church is dark. If you have a heart condition, be warned that the strepitus can be sudden and shocking.”

Saint Luke – and I will try this again – comes closest of the Four to a dispassionate Passion. This is not a critique, for he sings in an angelic way, as if rising above all human emotions. He is describing a cosmic or heavenly drama, conveying events beyond the events, as if from the other side of human flesh.

“Christ Carrying the Cross” by Hans Maier, c. 1515
“Christ Carrying the Cross” by Hans Maier, c. 1515

It is by this means he writes into our Scripture, so eloquently, the Mercy divine. It comes mysteriously to its head in the moment Jesus looks upon Peter, after his denial. We are carried notwithstanding our faults, our most grievous faults, our all-too-human failures: “And to old age I am He, and to hoar hairs will I carry: I have made, and I will bear: even I will carry and will deliver.”

Though unstated in these words, it is this promise of the Father, iterated in Isaiah, now reiterated through the eyes of the Son, and with a gentleness beyond understanding. Alike, in Luke, Christ’s words of comfort to the women of Jerusalem; the forgiveness of His executioners; and the promise made to Dismas from the very Cross: the “good thief” nailed up beside Him, who has suddenly made the most beautiful demand: “Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom.”

Only from Luke can we then hear that exhilarating reply: Hodie mecum eris in paradiso, “This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”

In Luke’s Passion, one feels most aware of the inevitability of what is unfolding, in the fulfillment of the ancient Pasch. From the beginning of Time this was approaching. From the felix culpa, from the sin of Adam, this was ineluctably on its way. Through the treacheries of all the ages, comes unrelentingly this Love.

And therefore, as Christians read in the retrospect of the Old Testament, the whole history of Israel, from Abraham through Moses, can be leading only here, and we glimpse our Messiah in passage after passage.

Truly, we are Jews, and if we say in shorthand that the Jews crucified, we can only mean that we crucified, so great is our identity with that Hebrew tradition, and the road we together trod through the pilgrim heart of history, upon this mysterious Earth.

For all of us, including the saints, are at our best good thieves, and we can turn only to Christ for our salvation. Through Luke we get this picture of Dismas (his name not through Scripture, but Tradition), as our strangely plausible first Christian saint.

This Easter, I think back, with the Copts, over the long history of flights, into and out of Egypt; and of our latest, Coptic, martyrs – led out on the beach in Libya by those devils in human flesh. And some overheard, on the video, in their last breaths, uttering the final appeal to the true Son of God: “Come, Jesus, save me.”

Mercy is not of this world, nor compatible with this world’s sense of justice, which interprets the former as tolerance and neglect, the latter as ruthless decision. Yet in the view of Heaven they are one and the same: not justice tempered by mercy, but the two infused.

This is too simple for us, we do things in stages, one mistake at a time.

The beauty in Saint Luke’s Passion is of that infusion, a Mercy truly not of this world: Christ’s reconciliation from the height of the Cross.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:

  • Michael Dowd

    Excellent and touching meditation Mr. Warren that fills us with so much hope. I love the good thief episode; It is so utterly human. We can all relate to him. Let us all be like the good thief when we have done something harmful to ourselves or others, that, like him, we will admit our fault and seek forgiveness for we know it will be immediately forthcoming.

  • TBill

    David-This was a very thoughtful article that made me look at the Gospels in a new way.
    Even though I had translated Luke and Acts in college and had taken a course on
    exegesis, it had never really occurred to me to think of the Gospels as
    literature per se, except perhaps for John’s which is so different from the
    synoptics. I think during the Passion accounts, I’ve mainly focused on Jesus
    and his suffering, as well as sorrow that He had to endure this for my sins.

    While I don’t think my perspective has been incorrect, it’s generally good to see a familiar story
    from a new vantage. This article definitely helps. Thanks.

  • grump

    Luke’s sometimes quirky personality was ably captured by Taylor Caldwell in “Dear and Glorious Physician.” The only apostle who was not a Jew, Luke never saw Christ but his gospel paints a wonderful picture of Our Lord not found in the three others. A priest once said of Luke, “He was Our Lady’s first troubadour.” Only to Luke did Mary reveal the Magnificat, which contains the noblest words in any literature, Caldwell wrote in her foreword to the great novel.

  • Deophilus

    If one infuses a Hmm in a Haw, one gets an Ahem, which in turn may, or may not(!), presage the ultimate exilic moment: the flight from oneself.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Simply brilliant, Dr. Warren. A true treasure. You have greatly deepened my apprecation of Luke’s acount of the Passion and of the meaning of the Passion itself. I will certainly share this for the benefit not only of my Catholic friends but for that of my Evangelical friends as well. Thank you.

  • Chris Ramsey

    I really love your columns, but this one raised more questions than usual. (The “usual questions” are the good kind that I have to grapple with on my own.) Not to be picky, but can you provide a little theological support for your notion of the “infusion” of justice and mercy? I’ve been discussing deep topics with a dear Evangelical/Pentecostal friend recently and just the other day I wrote: “Forgiveness is not an act of justice. Forgiveness is an act of mercy.” I even referred to the “good thief” like you did. The “good thief” knew the truth – he and the other “malefactor” (you gotta love the King James Version if only for the dramatic language!) were getting their “just deserts”. When he “suddenly made the most beautiful demand”, he was begging for mercy.

    I think you’re spot-on when you say “mercy is not of this world”, but does it necessarily follow that “in the view of Heaven” justice and mercy are “infused”?