Bringing the Gospels to Life – A way of Christian Meditation

Mary, the mother of Jesus, treasured the words of God that came to her through the conversations and events of her daily life. Luke tells us that after the visit of the shepherds sent to adore the new born child by the angelic choir, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; see also Luke 2:51). 

Through long years of pondering God’s word and cherishing the memory of these mysterious events in her heart, Mary penetrated the truths they held and her understanding of them grew. John Lynch give us a beautiful description of Mary in his poem A Woman Wrapped in Silence: “Here a woman wrapped in silence, and the words were closed within her spacious heart for pondering”.

I often picture Mary carrying and guarding these mysteries in her heart, turning the words and truths over in her mind, as if holding a precious jewel in hand and turning it over and over, letting the light play on every facet. This is a vivid image of what it means to meditate.

The idea of meditating may scare some of us away. Isn’t that meant for contemplative who spend long hours in prayer? Yet meditation on what God has said and done should be the business of every Christian.

I find three simple steps helpful for meditating on the Gospels: (1) Using my imagination to visualize the text, I progress (2) towards a better understanding of its meaning, and (3) finally to deeper love and union with its subject, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Imagination. The people and events of the gospels become more concrete and meaningful to us when we bring them to life before our eyes. The biblical characters themselves take on more color when we hear their conversations, think their thoughts, and get inside their skin. Visualizing the backdrop to their lives – the times, culture, and physical environment of first-century Israel – is like setting the stage in a play.

When you read the Gospel, imagine the scenes that the evangelists described. Picture them as concretely as possible. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination and your senses. Visualize the surroundings that Jesus lived in: Feel the dust and heat as the disciples walked the long road up to Jerusalem with Jesus. Hear the cries of the beggars and the raucous noise of the crowds following after them. Smell the freshly plowed fields and the stench of the crowded city alleys. Pay attention to any details the evangelist supplied. Mentally placing the Gospel account in its setting can enliven our perception of what happened and can expand our understanding of what writer Gabriel Meyer has called the “whole human landscape upon which grace acts”.

Spiritual directors have often encouraged this type of meditation. Ignatius of Loyola incorporated into the Spiritual Exercises, directing the person making a retreat to form a mental image of the scene (“composition of place”) and to see the persons and to observe and consider what they are doing when contemplating the given text.

Attempt to get inside the characters yourself as you read the text. Consider what was going on inside of them, exploring their motives and reactions, their hopes and fears, their joys and tensions. Puzzle with them over their questions and share their anxieties. See the events they are caught up in from their vantage point. Imagine yourself in their place: Can you identify with the woman with the bleeding disorder as she pressed through the crowd to get to Jesus (Mark 5:25-34)? Play the role of Pilate in your imagination and realize how close each of us is to succumbing to self-interest and crowd pressure. Stand by Mary at the foot of the cross and share her horror and grief as she watched her Son die an agonizing death. Or ask yourself where you fit in a particular scene, which person you identify with right now in your life.

Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, gave this advice as an aid to meditation:

Do you want to accompany Jesus closely, very closely?… Open the holy Gospel and read the passion of our Lord. But don’t just read it: Live it. There is a big difference. To read is to recall something that happened in the past; to live is to find oneself present at an event that is happening here and now, to be someone taking part in those scenes. Make a habit to mingle frequently with the characters who appear in the New Testament… My advice is that, in your prayer, you actually take part in the different scenes of the gospel, as one more among the people present.

Understanding. As you reconstruct the scene with your imagination, apply your mind to considering its meaning. What truth is revealed and highlighted through it? Expect the Holy Spirit to help you grow in comprehension and appreciation of the practical and spiritual realities demonstrated in the text. Take your time. Some passages only unfold their meaning to us over a whole lifetime. John the Baptist spent long years in the wilderness preparing for his ministry (Luke 1:80), probably reading and reflecting over the writings of the Israelite prophets to fathom his own role and that of the one whose coming he was to announce. Most likely Simeon had steeped himself in those same prophecies as he waited to see the Lord’s Anointed One before he died (Luke 2:25-35).

Love. Finally, the efforts we take to bring the Gospels fully alive in our imagination and understanding lead to a personal encounter with Jesus, to falling more deeply in love with him. And with heart full of love, we are more receptive and responsive to his word to us. Escriva writes:

First of all, imagine the scene or mystery you have chosen to help you recollect your thought and meditate. Next apply your mind, concentrating on the particular aspect of the Master’s life you are considering – his merciful heart, his humility, his purity, the way he fulfills his Father’s will. Tell him then what happens to you in these matters, how things are with you, what is going on in your soul. Be attentive, because he may want to point something out to you, and you will experience suggestions deep in your soul, realizing certain things and feeling his gentle reprimands.

This progression is summed up in the recent teaching on meditation and prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina [prayerful reading of Scripture]… this form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.

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This article originally appeared in God’s Word Today, Volume (13), Number (12), December 1991, published by The University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.

Top image: Prophecy of Simeon concerning the seven sorrows of Mary, painted by Giovanni Bellini. Image from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

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