Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In honor of St. Luke

St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists.

Today is the memorial of St. Luke the Evangelist - the author of one of the Gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles. Luke was a native of Antioch in Syria and a disciple and sometimes traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. Tradition states that he was a physician by training, but the style of his writings (i.e. the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts) make it abundantly clear that he was also a pretty good historian. In art, Luke is traditionally represented by the symbol of the ox.

The journey of St. Luke's relics

According to tradition, St. Luke died as an old man around the year AD 84, near the city of Thebes in modern-day Greece. His tomb in that city was venerated by the local Christians from that time. In the year 357, his relics (i.e. his bones) were removed from their tomb in Thebes and moved to Constantinople, the newly-created capital of the Roman Empire. In Constantinople, they were re-buried alongside those of St. Andrew in the city's new Church of the Holy Apostles.

Constantinople ended up being a very dangerous home for important Christian relics. The city was almost always under threat by malevolent forces. So it is no surprise that, at some point, the relics of St. Luke were moved again - this time to the relative safety of the city of Padua in Italy. There, they were re-interred in the Church of St. Justina, where they remain to this day.

A "fraternal request"

In 1992, Archbishop Hieronymos, then-bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Thebes, made a "fraternal request," and asked that some of St. Luke's relics be returned to their original tomb in Thebes. In the process of trying to accommodate Archbishop Hieronymos' request, Archbishop Antonio Mattiazzo, the Catholic archbishop of Padua, ordered that the ancient sarcophagus of St. Luke in the Padua church be opened and their contents examined so that there could be a certain level of confidence that the relics really did belong to St. Luke.

Examining the relics

The scientific examination began in 1998. The bones inside were carefully documented and studied. Tradition had recorded that in 1354, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, ordered the removal of the skull of St. Luke to a church in Prague and, since that time, the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague had venerated St. Luke's skull. Indeed, the bones inside the sarcophagus in Padua were found to be a near-complete skeleton, but the skull was missing.

The examiners immediately requested to examine the cranium in Prague. It was shipped down to Padua for examination and was found to a perfect match.

The sarcophagus which holds the remains of St. Luke in the Church of St. Justina in Padua, Italy.

The results

The complete investigation of the remains in St. Luke's tomb took nearly three years. The bones were actually inside a lead coffin within the larger (and later) marble sarcophagus. Analysis of the coffin and lead traces attached to the bones proved that the body had actually decomposed in that exact coffin. The coffin also contained traces of plant-pollens that are native to the Mediterranean region - for example, preserved pollen spores of Greek pine - a tree that is found only in Greece. These findings lent credence to the tradition that the coffin was originally in Greece.

The scientists determined that the bones themselves belonged to a man who died between the ages of 75 and 85. The man stood about 5 feet, 4 inches in height and, from the bone formation of his feet, it was determined that he walked a lot in his life. DNA analysis determined that the man belonged to one of the races that inhabited Syria around the time of Christ. The analysis excluded a man with Greek ancestry. The bones were also carbon dated by two independent laboratories (one in Tucson, Arizona and one in Oxford, England). The carbon dating suggested a date ranging from around 50 AD to 300 AD - a date range which certainly includes the presumed death date of St. Luke (c. 84 AD).

In the end, Archbishop Mattiazzo felt confident enough in the results of the testing, to feel comfortable in granting the request of the Greek Archbishop Hieronymos. On September 17, 2000, a Catholic delegation, headed by Archbishop Mattiazzo, traveled to the city of Thebes in Greece. They took with them a rib from St. Luke's skeleton - the one closest to his heart. As a gesture of good will between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, they gave it to Archbishop Hieronymos who then placed it in the ancient sepulcher in Thebes - the original resting place of the Evangelist.

St. Luke, the earliest Church historian and a physician, would probably be pleased that so much emphasis was placed on the importance of scientific evidence and accuracy in examining his remains. And if you ever end up in Padua or in Thebes, you can venerate the relics of this great saint with relative assurance that you are, truly, in his presence.