Luke’s Picture and Mary’s Song
by Nathan Brown
Earlier this year, I was privileged to spend an afternoon in one of the world’s great art museums, where I stumbled across a temporary exhibition of religious art and iconography. Among the ideas and discoveries sparked that afternoon was the tradition in Christian history that the gospel writer Luke might also have been an artist, who could well have painted portraits of the characters in the gospel story. Like so many traditions, this idea grew out of proportion and, at the height of medieval Christianity, churches across the Christian world claimed hundreds of paintings credited to “St. Luke.”
Despite no evidence for this in the Bible itself, this possibility caught my imagination. Imagine if there were original paintings of Jesus, His disciples, and other characters in the story. Imagine if “The Gospel According to Luke” was originally an illustrated biography.
Prompted by these imaginings, I recently re-read Luke’s gospel story with an eye to his descriptions and portrayal of scenes, people, and stories. And there are some powerful pictures, of which one particularly caught my attention in the context of our annual re-telling of the Christmas story.
At the beginning of this story of Jesus—a scene unique to Luke’s history—two women met to compare notes on the strange things happening to them (see Luke 1:39–45). One, Elizabeth, has found herself pregnant at an age beyond the usual years of childbearing, but with a promise that hers was to be a special child. But in welcoming her much-younger cousin, she also recognized something world-changing going on.
Sparked by this interaction, Mary broke into a song that for its poetry could have readily fitted into the Book of Psalms, and for its intent stands firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. She acknowledged the blessing of God and the incredible nature of what was happening to them. And she recognized the goodness and power of God that was working to bring change to the world, announcing a new upside-down kind of kingdom that was about to be realized: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52, 53, NLT).
It is a beautiful song of revolution (see Luke 1:46–55). Except that it is absurd.
Two peasant women—one old, tired, perennially disappointed and pregnant; the other an unmarried teenage girl, inexplicably and scandalously pregnant—in a small village in the hills of Judea singing about how their “miracle” boys were going to change the world, begin to undo all the injustices in the world, to challenge the empires and kings of the day, to begin to set the world right. On almost any reading of this story and its expected outcomes, it is ridiculous. That both their sons would lose their lives in the process underlines the farce.
Which is why it’s also a demonstration of faith and a challenge to our understanding of Jesus.
That their song is recorded, that we know their names today is remarkable enough. But that this actually was a step toward changing the world has been borne out in the history of our world since. That their song and this story continues to resonate and bring change in lives and in places of injustice today is something worth believing.
It’s quite a scene painted by Luke with words, with poetry, with storytelling. Imagine him painting it with colors and shades and shapes. Imagine him writing notes and making quick sketches as Mary might have described her memories of that day to him, perhaps some years after Jesus had returned to heaven. And imagine us as observers of this scene, and even as participants, similarly awed and inspired by what God did in Jesus in our world.
We are heirs of this prophetic and faithful tradition, re-telling these stories, rehearsing these songs, re-enacting these scenes; and responding to the call to understand the story of Jesus as changing the world, challenging the powerful, and lifting up the oppressed, the humble, and the hungry.
That’s a scene worth painting, preaching, and living.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.