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Imagining Jesus on His Own Terms, in His Own Time

Guest Author: 
Jerome Neyrey, SJ

Editor's Note --Jerome Neyrey, SJ, will present a full-day seminar and a half-day workshop on Igantian Spirituality and contemplative prayer at Seeking Connection - Across Generations, the SDI conference to be held March 14-17, 2019 in Bellevue, Washington. Neyrey offers a fresh approach to those familiar to Ignatian contemplative practice, blending spirituality with social science. Here Neyrey, a retired professor from Notre Dame, explains how the Ignatian approach to spiritual imagination can also be culturally and historically accurate.

Contemplation of the Gospel has long emphasized focus on the humanity of Jesus. This means appreciating that he thought with a human mind, willed with a human will, and loved with a human heart. The day-to-day life he lived from birth to death matters, because, for Christians, he sanctified all human living; he made all human living holy.

But Jesus lived his human life in a time very different from ours, so different that many call it the “scandal of particularity.” He was born into the House of Israel during the early Roman occupation of Judea; he lived a peasant’s life in small agricultural villages; he followed his father’s trade, a “worker-in-wood.” He was subsistent poor, unkempt (by our standards), thin (food insecurity), and old at 30. And yet his disciples still strived to follow his teachings and prayed as he taught them.

Those seeking Jesus in the gospels have long been taught to imagine him and his world. They are urged by St. Ignatius of Loyola to apply their senses to this task: “to see the persons with the sight of the imagination. . .to hear with the hearing what they are talking about. . . to smell and taste with the smell. . . to touch with the touch, e.g., to embrace and kiss” (Spir. Ex. 122-25). My contribution to this contemplative tradition  - detailed in my most recent book - is to suggest specific ways to imagine Jesus, but in his own culture.

At the SDI Conference, I will invite you to apply your senses to his world. We moderns often imagine him according to the stained-glass windows in our churches and the illustrations in our Bibles, which reflect Christian imagination of the last several hundred years. But what was life really like for Jesus (eschewing anachronisms and ethnocentricity)?

Our task is imagining his culture. In our world where “inculturation” is a genuine value, we do well to become inculturated into Jesus’ own world, so as to know him intimately on his own terms. We can do this by learning to see gender as he saw it, to value persons and things according to his value system, to appreciate his compassion and healing touch, and to laugh with him as he tells his funny stories. To be sure, we step out of our comfort zones, but the risk is worth it. Contemplating Jesus on his own terms can open our hearts to a deeper experience of not only who he was, but who we truly are.


Jerome Neyrey, SJ is a Jesuit priest and taught as a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. His book Imagining Jesus in His Own Culture: Creating Scenarios of the Gospel for Contemplative Prayer was published in 2018 by Wipf and Stock Publishers. He is known for his pioneering work in applying social science to spiritual practice and scholarship. He has published more than a dozen books and is a member of the Context Group: Project on the Bible in Its Cultural Environment. He earned his Ph.D. in Scripture from Yale and taught at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is now a writer in residence and pastoral minister in St. Louis, Missouri.

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