4. Religious Experience in The Bible
As well as giving us many different examples of ways that God has spoken to people over the centuries, The Bible also gives us a number of stories which tell how individuals received and tried to respond to being addressed by God. I am going to look in detail at two such stories.
The Annunciation to Mary [Luke 1:26 – 38]
The nub of the story is the meeting of an angel with the young girl Mary. There are several interesting things about this meeting. Firstly, there is nothing in the story to indicate where the meeting takes place, beyond the implication that it took place inside. Nativity plays have accustomed us to seeing Mary sitting quietly on a stool. Artists often depict her reading or spinning. But the story tells us nothing about the setting. It is equally possible that she was doing the washing up, the ironing, or making the beds, or even just putting her feet up after a busy day. In short, she might equally well have been doing any of the household tasks that you and I have to do.
The meeting is entirely unexpected. It comes out of the blue. We know nothing of Mary’s state of mind prior to the meeting, but there is nothing to lead us to suppose that Mary was expecting this to happen. And what does happen? Who is this angel?
Nativity plays have led us to assume that angels are always dressed in white, and have wings. There is nothing in the text of the story to indicate this. The Greek word which The Bible translates as “angel” simply means “messenger”. We are talking here about a ‘messenger from God’, but there is no indication as to how the messenger delivers his/her message. There are presumably a number of possibilities. It may be that Mary had a vision, and ‘saw’ a messenger. It may be that Mary ‘heard’ a voice. It may be that Mary just ‘knew’ what the message was, and therefore from whom it came. It may even be that the messenger was another human being, through whom God spoke to Mary. All of these are possible.
As Mary receives the news from the messenger she moves through a sequence of emotions. She is firstly “deeply troubled”; then she “wondered” what the greeting could mean; then she doubts and asked a question; finally she accepts the message. The movement is from anxiety, to thinking, to doubting and questioning, and finally to accepting, What the story doesn’t tell us of course is how long it took Mary to move through the sequence. We tend to assume that it all took place quickly, once and for all, and it may well be that that is correct. But I also find it plausible to think of this sequence taking much longer. Maybe Mary took hours, or days, or even weeks or months, to get from her first hearing of the message, to accepting it. Maybe she was stuck on the thinking or questioning for some time. Maybe, having thought and questioned, she went back to thinking again. Maybe, she worked through the sequence over and over again, finding different levels of meaning each time. However long it took, notice that the angel doesn’t leave her until it is over. She is not left to handle matters on her own.
If we think of the story as a model for this sort of experience, then the lack of time references allow all of these possibilities to be available to us.
Notice the ‘speeches’ of both Mary and the angel. Mary says very little, a nine word question, and a twelve word acceptance. But the angel speaks three times, and twice at some length. Perhaps all of this took place in a brief moment of time. But if the story is thought of as taking place over some considerable period of time, then it might be that the initial message was just that Mary would have a child, and that the rest of the detail of the angel’s words came to Mary as she reflected on the initial message.
The story gives Mary very little to do. It’s not absolutely clear whether the issue of Mary’s acceptance is a real one. The angel appears to tell Mary that she will become pregnant. There doesn’t seem to be much room for discussion here. Could Mary have said ‘No’? The story doesn’t seem to allow for that. Where choice comes in, perhaps, is in the matter of her response to what she had been told. So maybe Mary had no choice about being pregnant, but she did have some choice about whether or not to co-operate further with the message. In this context perhaps it is significant that the only thing asked of Mary is that she should name the child ‘Jesus’. By doing so she indicates her acceptance of her role. We too might find it helpful to perform some simple symbolic act to signify our acceptance of our religious experience, even if it is only a quiet ‘Yes’.
The story also glosses over the fearful consequences for Mary of this message. Her pregnancy will put Mary in considerable difficulty. What is she going to say to her family and friends, let alone her husband to be? Is anyone likely to believe this story about an angel? What is going to happen to her? Who is going to look after the child?
Another interesting aspect of the story is that Mary is offered a sign, some unlooked for event which will authenticate her experience for her. In this case she is told that her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, is also going to have a child. I wonder if signs are less usual in religious experiences today, or whether, on the contrary, little pieces of synchronicity often occur which appear to corroborate our experience?
Elizabeth also serves as someone Mary can talk to about what has happened to her: someone whom she can be confident will understand and who will pass no judgement, because Elizabeth is going through a similar experience. She will be able to offer support; Mary will not feel alone through all of this.
|Then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, and came to John to be baptised by him. John tried to dissuade him. “Do you come to me?’ he said. “It is I who need to be baptised by you.’ Jesus replied, “Let it be so for the present; it is right for us to do all that God requires.’ Then John allowed him to come.||It was at this time that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee||During a general baptism of the people,|
|No sooner had Jesus been baptised and come up out of the water than the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove to alight on him. And there came a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.’||and was baptised in the Jordan by John. As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens break open and the Spirit descend on him, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight.’||when Jesus too had been baptised and was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and there came a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; in you I delight.’|
|[Matthew 3:13 – 17]||[Mark 1:9-11]||[Luke 3:21-22]|
The story of Jesus’ baptism is told in three of the four Gospels. Mark’s, Matthew’s and Luke’s stories have been set side by side above, in order for us to be able to see how their versions of the story compare. A number of interesting things emerge!
Matthew prefaces his story with an account of how John the Baptist tried to dissuade Jesus from being baptised by him, arguing that it would be more appropriate for it to be the other way round. Seemingly Matthew and his church found it difficult to see why Jesus had needed to be baptised by someone who was ‘junior’ to him. This doesn’t seem to have been a problem for Mark or Luke.
We are told nothing of Jesus’ state of mind prior to his being baptised. What the Gospels tell us of John the Baptist might lead us to expect Jesus and all those others who came to see John, to be in at least a heightened state of expectation. (see the accounts of John’s preaching in Matthew3:1-12; Mark1:1-8; and Luke3:1-20.) But we don’t actually know.
All three writers describe Jesus’ religious experience as taking place after, and not during, his baptism, which is interesting because the act of being baptised would presumably have been in itself a semi-formal religious act. Mark says that Jesus’ experience took place as he was coming up out of the water. Matthew says that it was after he had come out of the water, while Luke has him praying after being baptised, when it happened.
It is quite fascinating to see how they vary in describing what took place next. Mark tells how Jesus saw the heavens open and the Spirit descend like a dove, and how a voice spoke to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son”. All this sounds like a personal, interior experience for Jesus. There is nothing in Mark’s story to suggest that anybody else was aware of anything happening-only Jesus has the vision and the voice is addressed to Jesus alone.
Matthew and Luke tell the story a little differently. They differ from each other in how they do this, but in the same direction. They each begin to tell the story as if it was an event of which anybody present would have been aware. So Matthew omits to tell us that it was Jesus who had the vision: he describes it as if anyone might have seen it. Luke alters the words which the voice speaks to “This is my beloved Son”. The words thus cease to be spoken to Jesus alone, but are rather addressed to all present.
The simplest explanation of all this might be that Jesus had a religious experience of which no one else knew (following Mark); that at some point he shared the experience with somebody,(the disciples would seem the obvious people), and with the story now ‘public’ it was retold and retold, gradually in the retelling becoming more and more an exterior event. Anyone who has told stories will know of the tendency to make them more dramatic in the telling, in order to hold your audience, and making Jesus’ experience an experience which everybody witnessed, would no doubt have made it easier for people to understand.
Although the experience which Jesus had was a very powerful one, it was also quite non-specific. Seeing the Spirit of God descending on you, and hearing a voice telling you that you are God’s Son, is enormously affirming but it doesn’t tell you what to do next. No direction or explanation, is offered. Jesus has to work out for himself what this experience means: he’s given no clues.
All three Gospel writers make it clear that this was a turning point in Jesus’ life. He did not go back home to Nazareth whence he had come (see Mark1:9), instead he went into the wilderness to ponder the meaning of all this. Now the wilderness would not have been a pleasant place to go, but the Spirit which he has just received drives him there.
Matthew and Luke tell of three of the alternative ways forward which he considers and rejects. Perhaps it is significant that they don’t tell us which way forward he accepted. Maybe they didn’t know, or maybe Jesus didn’t know himself at that point; maybe he was just clear that certain ways forward were not right without yet being clear which way was right. Perhaps the way forward needed to be learned by experience, rather than being clearly indicated at the beginning. Certainly the time in the wilderness must have been very difficult for Jesus, struggling with these issues. All three writers depict the scene as not only being a struggle on the human level, they all say that it also involved the devil on the one hand and angels on the other. Jesus may or may not have been aware of this, but the struggle within himself was but a mirror of the struggle between good and evil, a struggle of cosmic dimensions. The struggle is not resolved in the wilderness. At the end of the story we are simply told that the devil departs (Matthew:4:11; Luke:4:13), the implication seems to be that he will return. The struggle is not yet over, it will continue.
The story of Jesus’ baptism may now sound much more like one of our own religious experiences. It seems to have been unexpected; it was intensely personal and was not shared with anybody else until later; it was very affirming; but its specific meaning had to be discovered. The discovery was not going to be simple or easy, for it would have to take place in a setting which would be experienced as a wilderness, but it would be all right. There will be angels looking after you.
Checks and balances
I spoke earlier about the need for some checks and balances to help us avoid the real dangers of misreading or misusing our religious experiences. These two Bible stories offer some guidance.
- In both stories we are told that an angel stays with the person addressed by God until such time as they have come to accept their experience.
God does not leave us alone after speaking to us.
- Mary was offered a sign to verify the trustworthiness of what she had been told. She was told of what had happened to her cousin Elizabeth.
We too might find ourselves being offered a supportive sign.
- Mary is given someone to whom she can go and talk about what has happened, who will understand, accept and confirm her experience. Elizabeth’s experience was not the same as Mary’s, it was her husband Zechariah who had been spoken to by an angel, but she knew what it was like to be touched by God in such an unexpected way. Mary would find in her both an ally and a friend.
It is a great help to have someone with whom you can talk about your religious experience. You won’t want to share it with just anybody, it is too precious for that. But someone whose wisdom you respect can provide some checks and balances as you seek to respond to God. There is a tradition within the church of men and women who have a gift for this. The tradition speaks of them variously as spiritual directors, soul friends, spiritual accompaniers, spiritual guides etc. You may be lucky enough to find someone like this. But don’t worry if you don’t. There is a wise eastern saying that ‘when the pupil is ready the teacher will come.’ that I believe we can trust. Look out for someone in whom you can confide.
- Jesus went off to be by himself for a time, to consider and reflect upon what had happened to him.
You may well want to do something similar; either go away for a time alone with God to mull over your experience; or give some time each day or week to keep it in mind and to ask yourself if anything else has happened which might confirm, contradict, or clarify what you experienced.
- Jesus seems to have come first of all to some clarity as to what His experience did not mean, before He began to understand what it did mean.
It may be easier to rule some things out as a first step.
- Jesus clearly reflected upon His experience in the light of The Bible. How might it help Him to understand what had happened to Him, and what He was being called to do. In the story He quotes Biblical passages to the devil to counter the superficial attractiveness of what the latter proposes.
It will almost certainly be valuable to hold your experience against your understanding of the Bible, and it may be that certain verses come to you which clarify your understanding.
- Notice that neither Mary or Jesus acts hastily: they both give themselves time to consider what has happened. They go away and mull it over.
This is valuable advice for it will almost certainly take time for the full meaning and implication of what you have received to sink in. It will take time to begin to understand it. You will need to reflect on the possible consequences of saying ‘Yes’ to it. It may take time before you can give a real and committed assent to it. I am sure that God does not expect us to respond before we are able to do so.
- When they are ready to act, both Mary and Jesus take one small step at a time. Mary goes to see Elizabeth, and Jesus goes off by himself.
There is an excellent story of a Tibetan monk who fled his country and travelled across The Himalayas to India. When he arrived he was asked how he had managed such an arduous journey through bitter cold and snow and over such impassable mountains. His reply was “one small step at a time.”
What is not stated but is clearly implied in both stories, is that both Mary and Jesus took these experiences seriously. They may have taken their time to ponder them, but they did not forget them. They thought about them, and no doubt prayed about them, and they allowed their memory of the experience to work on inside them and to bear fruit.
Most of our religious experiences are not likely to be of the intensity of these two Biblical ones, but the principles of how we might reflect on them remain the same.