If you are in the Times Square area of New York City and decide to step into the historic St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on West 46th street you might be puzzled to observe a “cow” motif incorporated in various places around the church. A particularly striking feature of the decor is a brass bull that hangs above the altar. What’s with that? Not only are bovines not usually associated with Christian worship, but in the heart of Manhattan of all places?
If you do a little research on the subject, you will learn that a winged ox is the ancient symbol used to represent St. Luke the Evangelist who authored the New Testament books of Luke and Acts. (You will also learn, plausibly enough, that Luke is regarded as the patron saint of butchers!) Now, that fact may explain why a church bearing his name features in its logo a haloed cow holding a book (see inset from http://www.stlukesnyc.org), but it certainly raises a whole new set of questions! What’s the connection between cattle and Luke? After all, since we know Luke the Evangelist was an educated man who wrote in elegant Greek and was a physician by profession, he wasn’t the sort of person whom we’d expect to associate with livestock. What in the world explains this strange connection?
This rather bizarre symbolism reflects that ancient peoples were masters of committing things to memory. In an age long before “Googling,” people developed efficient ways of associating facts that aided in their recall. Just as modern gurus of memory improvement will teach you to associate words and names with striking mental pictures, these folks already knew and practiced that principle. So to distinguish Luke’s gospel a memorable image incorporated early in his account is chosen to represent the book, and thus the author.
Huh? It’s fair to say that few people could spot a cattle reference in the text of Luke’s gospel! The book begins with the story of how an angel announced to Zechariah that his (supposedly) barren wife Elizabeth would give birth to a very special child who would become the preacher we know as John the Baptist, and whose role was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. Are you making the connection yet? No? If you are familiar with the story (Luke 1:5-20) you will further recall that Zechariah was a priest at the temple in Jerusalem, and that this revelation occurred while he was in the sanctuary preparing a sacrifice. Since one of the priestly duties was to perform animal sacrifices at the altar (actually, a different altar outdoors), and a bullock (bull calf) was one of the common animals sacrificed, a connection is finally made. Put yourself into a group of early Christians hearing this story read, and explained in simple graphic terms, and you can perhaps see how this provided a memorable point of reference since Luke’s is the only one of the four Gospels that tells this story.
Isn’t this a really strained connection? Of course! But our brains still work in the same way today and we too remember things best when there are associations with ideas that surprise and entertain us. That’s why many of us have a fascination with the factual oddities we call “trivia.” Ancient peoples were typically illiterate (and books were rare and expensive in any case), so having “memory hooks” helped them recall things and keep their knowledge organized. Besides, colorful details made learning a lot more fun! Despite our advances, we haven’t changed much in that respect, have we? Becoming conversant with the Bible and learning about the Christian faith doesn’t have to be a solemn and dreary business. When we can connect with stories and tidbits that intrigue and delight us, we find it easier to integrate the more weighty topics too. And as you’ve probably guessed, that’s precisely why you’re reading this!
(So now that we know why St. Luke is represented by an ox, why is it often depicted as having wings? That turns out to be a whole different connection!)