Code names, human drama, and how the gospel incarnates in volatile times
An excerpt from my in-depth interview with the Gospel writer Luke
What a precious thing, the Gospel, that God would place in our hands. What was he doing?
Perhaps I can explain my surprise email exchanges with the different gospel writers as a result of that question. And others, like: How does my life fit with the Great Commission? What is the Gospel? How does it fit in the world today, the terribly beautiful and frightening world I sometimes love, sometimes hate?
I finally built up the courage to hack out an email to gospel writer John and ask him a few questions that had been brewing somewhere in my subconscious for a time. After a few earnest email exchanges, in which he shared some unpublished poetry, Saint John agreed to sit down for an interview.
The rest, as they say, is history. I realized I had more questions for him, and though I enjoyed his poetry, wanted to engage his mind in person. And so he agreed to sit down for an extended interview. Then he arranged meetings for me and the other Gospel writers from there.
I’ve sat on these for sometime, and, to be honest, don’t really know what to do with them. I’m a sucker for the interview format, but not everyone is. So this, my friend, is a risk. I’ve decided to share portions of my conversations here, with you.
The Gospel is a stunning vision. And yet, wonder of wonders, it has become familiar to so many, even disdained. In the Gospel we encounter a mysterious figure who shines with unapproachable light, yet he remains hidden unless a heart seek him. The paradox of the revelation of Christ and the search for him is daunting. It is a riddle whose resolution in my own life I long to see.
To read the books of the Gospel is to enter a river, deep enough to swim in. The water has its way. My hope is that as you read, you will be pulled into the stream, and find refreshing there.
Today I’m sharing a portion of my wide-ranging interview with Saint Luke, whose gospel I often find myself reading, especially around Christmas. In this portion, we talk about Mary and how she helped him to unlock key truths as he sought to reconstruct the story of Jesus.
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An excerpt from my in-depth interview with the Gospel writer Luke
Andrew Kooman: Something I admire about your gospel, something that I am thankful for is your focus on the life of Mary and her role in the Incarnation. In John’s apocalyptic writings Mary is a type for the Church, the womb in the world that carries Christ, the Divine Seed. But before all of that apocalyptic imagery, you give us the real-life, humble story of a young virgin in the Middle East who through her obedience brings Christ into the world. Can you talk further about that mystery? Saint Luke: It’s an incredible mystery. The story of Mary fleshes out a spiritual truth for me: Christ must also be fully formed in me, I must receive the work of God and let his life inhabit me. We, the Church, are to receive the work of God. His Holy Spirit must fall upon us, and conceive in us the life of Christ. And we are to produce Christ, as it were, and share him with the world. Mary is a human example for us of how we are to relate to the Divine. Of course Christ came as a child once in history, in real space and time in her very body, but he takes residence in all who believe and through his Spirit makes the righteous life truly possible for all of us.
AK: Your inclusion of Mary helps to humanize the Incarnation, to place it more deeply in the human experience, perhaps in the same way that Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ helped to humanize the story of the Passion in comparison to other films on the subject. Watching her in that film, and in your gospel, imagining her as a mother caught up in the incredible story of the Messiah, helps to deepen the understanding, perhaps it is the emotional understanding, of the cross and what it means. Why do you think you included information about Mary where the other gospel writers did not? LK: I don’t know that I can answer the question! [Laughter]. I obviously can’t speak for the other writers. Her arc in the Redemption narrative was compelling to me. Obviously she is not the focus of the Gospel, but she played an important role and it was helpful for me—and I thought it would be helpful for my audience—to be able to place the story of the Incarnation in its context, a seemingly small family drama that ends up being the greatest drama ever known. Mary was a nobody in the eyes of the world, but to God she was crucial for his plan of redemption. AK: That's an exciting thought. LK: Yes. Contemplating her life and her willingness as a servant of God can become a model of personal devotion to our Lord, and, it helps us enter into his fellowship. She stands as witness throughout his life and a participant in his ministry. We, like Mary, need to visit the manger, desperately seek him where he has stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem to discover where and how he is about his Father’s business, and we must come to the foot of the Cross where he redeems the world. Pray to her? Worship her? Of course not. She would scoff at the idea, like the angel to my friend the Apostle John she too would say: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” AK: Can you talk about your audience? LK: Certainly. Although I had a wider Gentile audience in mind, I wrote specifically for a friend in Rome who, as you read at the beginning of my gospel and Acts of the Apostles, I named Theophilus. AK: The lover of Theos, God. LK: You know your Greek! AK: That's about as much as I know [laughter]. It was a code name, right? LK: Yes, I wrote in dangerous times when the Emperor was severely punishing and persecuting the Church. Theophilus was a high standing official in the Emperor’s government who God met in a profound way. My writings were a commission to both defend the faith and argue for it. AK: Why was Christianity regarded with so much suspicion? LK: Nero, by the end of his reign, was paranoid and unstable, but still very shrewd. When Rome burned at the time he, coincidentally, desired a grander city and palace, Christians were an easy target to blame. We were already mistrusted. We refused to worship the Emperor. Many people, of course, only paid the Emperor lip service as a god, but feigned worship out of political expedience. Our adamant insistence to worship but one God, the Hebrew God of all gods and none of the traditional Greek or Roman deities whose myths and stories united the empire and its colonies, was unfathomable. Christians, in their refusal to worship the empire’s gods, were traitors to Rome. AK: Easy scapegoats? LK: Exactly. That, at least, was the popular feeling. But the government, and my friend, needed to see that the Gospel was not a political threat to Rome. Where Rome was a physical kingdom, the Kingdom of God was a spiritual one that transcended political loyalties and boundaries. It was and is something other. It was possible to be a Christian and a Roman. It was important to me, however, to communicate that though spiritual, the Gospel is not abstract and far off. It is after all, a person. And the drama of the Gospel is a human drama that plays out in history, in the physical world we participate in day after day. I wanted to give an accurate record of the events of Christ’s life in the midst of these extenuating circumstances. An account that relied heavily on eyewitnesses. Even in Rome there was a certain familiarity with the events that took place under Pilate. Palestine was always a volatile posting for any Roman governor. Any official familiar with Rome’s international interests and legal cases knew the story of Pontius Pilate. Later on, the riots in Rome under Claudius, and the influence of Paul under Roman imprisonment: Christ’s name was one Roman officials and average citizens had heard. However, there was as much, if not more, false testimonies and bizarre tales circulating about Christ and the faith. So it was important, as I sat down to write, to have a detailed and accurate account. AK: How did you take on that monumental task? LK: Well, I accumulated research throughout my years with Paul. I’ve always been interested in details, so it was natural for me to pay attention to facts, especially the ones surrounding the birth of our most holy faith. My educational background demanded an orderly, logical account, and so did my mind. That was part of my own salvation process and is a natural part of my own spiritual life: weighing the evidence presented to me, then deciding for the faith. AK: When did you first meet Mary? LK: Oh, wow, let me think. (Pause). Sometime in the early fifties, I think. Once, with Paul, we settled in Asia Minor. Paul had his eyes set on Asia early in his ministry, but was kept from travelling there until he was allowed by God to venture from Macedonia. We were in Asia for a number of years, and so I had significant opportunity to talk with Mary where she lived in Ephesus. As you know, the mother of our Lord spent the years after Christ died in John’s house. John and Mary had a deep connection that became its deepest at the foot of the cross where they watched their beloved die. She lived with him in Asia Minor and served God and his Church until her death. AK: Interesting. I hadn't really thought before how you would have otherwise known the various utterances of people such as the Centurion who spoke at the cross. LK: Her witness at that event, and others, were invaluable. She had a very sharp mind. She, all those years later, could utter every word of the Magnificat, the prophetic uttering she announced when she met her cousin Elizabeth. And it was the same of Zechariah’s prophetic utterance when his mouth was unstopped. She could recite every word. She helped me to make some important connections between the Old Covenant and the New. To me, especially as a Greek not familiar with the Hebrew scripture upon my conversion, to understand the urgency of the Hebrew Messianic expectation, as propelled through utterances like Zechariah’s, was necessary. AK: Here's where I fangirl a little. Zechariah’s story is one of my favourites! “We, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Those very words helped me understand, in a new way, the freedom I have as a child of God and the will of God for humankind throughout history. I’m so thankful you included those words in your gospel.
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LK: That’s wonderful to hear. You see, it’s a reason the contemplative life, the reflective life is so important to the Church. It is these prophets and servants of God who have protected the history of the Church throughout the ages. AK: Okay, hard pivot. You good with that? LK: Hit me. AK: Christ, and you as you recount his words to your audience, casts such a stunning vision: a God who gives generously to all who ask, to all who recognize their need; a God not satisfied to leave people in hunger and poverty. Christ always casts a vision beyond the shadows of the world to heaven where God reigns, where another Kingdom rules entirely. And that is interesting to a 21st century audience that is recovering and renouncing, naming and renaming power structures that once seemed absolute, and that aren’t always a good thing.
But in your gospel you record that vision of Christ, and it is an entirely different system, not of this world. The picture of a Kingdom, and a Father, that we want to come and rule and reign; a power that we should long to submit to. A God who knows all, every secret, every sin of any power structure that has oppressed the disadvantaged, and who will make all things right. An all-powerful power we should fear more than any other oppressive or good power we might face on this earth. That eternal perspective fills your pages and is astonishing! And don't worry, I'm getting to my question [laughter]. Something attractive to me about Christ in the gospels is that he appeals to so many. Your gospel, I think, should be a breath of fresh air to any one who feels marginalized or oppressed. Christ has a word to any cruel or unjust power, and it's, well, damning. But he equally appeals, and with no inconsistency in his character, to others. I think Christ would be attractive to a Roman official. He’s no pushover. As you present him He is noble and strong and fair. Meekness and compassion do not overrule strength and boldness: all these qualities fit. LK: I think that Christ appeals to that Roman sense of equality: even a slave might become Emperor of Rome. In Rome those who followed orders and pleased the master were advanced and blessed. I think Christ as a man embodied Roman values, in a pure form. Rome acknowledged that hard work, discipline, sacrifice, intensity, struggle, faithfulness, warfare, strength were not merely important, but were essential to life. These qualities of the Messiah appealed to Theophilus and any Greek lover of God. Now, from history we know Rome lost sight of these things and so its Empire fell: it became soft, decadent, corrupt, lazy, complacent. There seem so many parallels between Rome of old and the world, especially Western culture, today. A slide into sloth and comfort. A decadence that is a sign of decay. We need, as believers, to incarnate the values Christ demonstrated in our own lives. We are surprised, sometimes, that the Christian life, of all things, is a life of faithfulness, and discipline, and sacrifice, and intensity. That Christian life is a spiritual battle, a striving – not to be saved – but to receive the grace of God and to live in that grace. A striving to silence and place aside all voices and desires that compete for our attention. We somehow expect this life to be a continual sabbath. And that might be true in a spiritual sense: we can rest from trying to do the work of salvation and pleasing God because Christ has done that work for us. But we’re sure not in Eden anymore, Toto. We’ve got some work to do: the work of God! Like the servant in the parable, Compel people to come to the banquet table, beggars though they be. Compel people to come and freely eat, for we know where the food is.