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Understanding the Bible Series:
Meditation on Our Lord in the Gospels - Part 1

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

First on Scripture, analyzing what it means to meditate on the life of Christ as found in the Gospels. If there is one thing that I want to make sure we get from our study of Scripture it is that we will be equipped and motivated to meditate on the Scriptures. Whatever else the Bible is made it is not made for speed reading. It is made for meditative, reflective, prayerful communication with God. What I will do and I thought I would give you this, these three pages are filled with my own hieroglyph, my own poor penmanship and my abbreviations, nevertheless they do hold together and consequently I thought I would reflect on what we have here and then add comments, additions and observations as we go along.

What is Meditating on the Life of Christ?

First of all, what do we mean? What is meditating on the life of Christ? And this, by the way, is also a good norm to keep in mind, in thinking whether on one’s own or prayerfully, it is always well to begin with the what I am thinking of.

First then, what is meditation on the life of Christ? As we said, to meditate on the life of Christ means to think prayerfully about the events in the life of Christ as described in the New Testament especially in the Gospels. The two key words are, think and prayerfully. You do not meditate unless you use your mind. When we meditate we have ideas already on our minds on which we wish to meditate or ideas that we hope to get from the meditation but always it is not merely thinking, it is thinking but prayerfully. What is the essence of doing anything prayerfully? To do anything prayerfully, to do anything prayerfully means to do it in the presence of God. Now watch the distinction, we are always present to God needless to say He is not always present to us. In other words, wherever we are God has to be otherwise we wouldn’t be. But in terms of presence, God is always both thinking of us and loving us whereas we, though God is within us, surrounding us, God is not always on our minds, and not to be on our minds not just in thoughts but especially is not always, to say the least on our minds where we are loving Him. Consequently to meditate on the life of Christ means to think prayerfully, which means consciously and lovingly, consciously and lovingly about the events in the life of Christ as described in the New Testament and especially in the Gospels.

Why Meditation on the Life of Christ?

Why meditation on the life of Christ? In other words, what’s the value? The value of such prayerful reflection is clear from the history of the Church, from the lives of the saints and the practice of all people who are serious about their faith in holiness or better, serious about their growth in holiness. All that we know from the history of the Church, from the lives of the saints and the practice of anyone who wants to grow in sanctity indispensably, indispensably to grow in holiness a person must be deliberately aware of God’s presence. Moreover, thus most of the writings of men and women whom the Church has raised to the honors of the altar, most of the writings of the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church, most of the homilies that have been preached over the centuries, most of the meditations of priests, religious and most of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Church’s official patron of retreats are prayerful considerations of or on the life of Christ. In fact, we may say that is why God became Man. God became Man that He might live on earth, have a human life that would be visible, palpable, audible. In other words, God wanted to make Himself sensibly perceptible. That’s why He became Man. And it is that sensibly perceptible life of Jesus Christ, of God Incarnate that we are saying has been over the centuries and should be for us the mainstay of our prayerful reflection on the life of Christ. Most people, I don’t think, are aware of how important it is to see the life of Christ in terms of events. Where there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. The event may be very short, maybe just a brief meeting with someone, for example, today’s Gospel. Christ’s dialogue with the Pharisee representing the other Pharisees. Most of the events in the Gospels would be like four, five maybe six verses in length. What we should keep in mind is that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the evangelists under divine guidance wrote the Gospels in, let’s call it, episodic form. In other words, each of the four Gospels is a collection of, well events, episodes, things that took place. And then for meditation purposes it is well, as we’ll see, to concentrate for a meditation on an event. Now the source.

The Source for Meditating on the Life of Christ is the Gospels

The obvious source for meditating on the life of Christ is the Gospels. That statement may not be as obvious as the word obvious being in that sentence may indicate. By now there have been libraries, not tens but hundreds of thousands of books written about Christ. Yet the object of meditation though it can well be any number of books in Christology, including one that I wrote that has yet to be published, which I call, From Christ to Catholicism. So there are libraries about Christ but the primary source of meditation should be the Gospels. And the more educated a person is, the more academically sophisticated, the less likely, I know from years of working with so many souls, the less likely is such a person to well, shall we say, go back to the ABC’s of our faith. But the very simplicity, the language of the Gospels is simply in the extreme, even vocabulary wise, for example, in teaching Christology and one of the lectures was on Christ’s teaching on the world, it is always in the Gospels the same word, in Greek, cosmos, in English, world, that Christ uses, but I counted and this then is the theology, fourteen different meanings of the word ‘world’ as used by Christ. I use the word without really meaning it; the language of the Gospels is deceptively simple. I don’t really mean deceptively because the Holy Spirit does not want to deceive us, but we in the United States and especially we in the English speaking world and not just in the States, you know what we’ve come to do, we have come to identify intelligence with literacy. A person’s intelligence and all the intelligence tests that either I’ve ever taken or given or am familiar with are basically vocabulary tests. Well on the literacy level the Gospels, ‘My gosh, is this the vocabulary, all the vocabulary that Matthew had?’ I hope I’m clear, don’t be misled by the few words, the posity, to use a big word, the posity of the vocabulary of the Gospels. And this is precisely one of the reasons why everyone should meditate on the Gospels to get behind the meaning of the words. And to get behind the meaning of words there is no substitute, does not exist, there is no substitute, to get behind the meaning of any words and with emphasis the words of the Gospels than prayer. But the moment I use that word ‘prayer’ for some people I’ve got to redefine the meaning of prayer. For a lot of people they pray, well when they pray, they make the Sign of the Cross, either open a prayer book or at least they open their mouth and well, they start praying, the most important prayer is done without opening your mouth. The most important prayer is done deep, deep down inside the human mind. We go on.

The Words of the Gospels

They are, that is, the words of the Gospels, they are the inspired narratives of the Apostles or the disciples of the Apostles, there are four evangelists, two of whom were personal apostles of Christ, namely Matthew and John and the other two were disciples of apostles of Christ, Mark of St. Peter and Luke of St. Paul. They therefore give us the Gospels, the clearest, deepest and simplest and most authentic accounts of what Jesus said and did during His visible stay on earth. I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it again, and I want to emphasize I cannot begin to tell you the value of memorizing as much of the Gospels as you can. Let me change that sentence, to memorize as much of the Gospels as you want to because we memorize what we want to remember. As I have said, having been on the stage for six years before entering the Society of Jesus, playing different parts in different plays, Henry IV in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. In fact, it seemed Henry IV never stopped talking, thousands of words. And you’d better memorize, and you cannot trust the prompter behind the curtains to supply you for memorizing. The strongly believing Muslims, hear it, the strongly believing Muslims memorize the Koran. And one of the devastating consequences of our media, it has deprived so many people of the great blessing of memorizing. What we memorize becomes part of our mind. Once you memorize anything for the rest of your life, as I’ve told my Jesuit students, and into eternity, even in heaven you will know things, you will say things and your happiness will be increased by your having memorized here on earth. I don’t think I convinced all of my Jesuit students. Memorize, becomes part of your mind, we think only on what’s on our mind, so what’s on our mind? What is on our mind? Memorized.

Each of the four Gospels is different written by different authors each with his own personality and experience and each writing for a difference purpose to different persons from a different perspective. And we believe the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Evangelists, if I can use the verb, never tempered with their personalities. And the four Evangelists couldn’t be four more different persons. They just thought differently, had different vocabularies, some more intelligent than others. And Matthew being a businessman, the twenty-eight chapters of Matthew’s Gospel are twenty-eight chapters of business. The business of salvation. That’s why Matthew regularly quotes Our Lord about the kingdom of heaven. In other words, there are dividends being paid for making well, supernatural money by doing God’s will.

A Word About the Four Evangelists


Why bring this up, because it is well to concentrate on the evangelist that is most, you might say, close to your own personality. Matthew thus, he had been a tax collector for their own government. We would now say he had been a banker or well, a businessman. His purpose in writing the first Gospel was to convince Christians of Jewish origin that Jesus was the Messiah and fulfilled the promise of the prophets. We might want to begin by remembering that he was one of the twelve apostles and therefore Matthew gives us many prophesies from the Old Testament and shows how Jesus fulfilled these prophesies. More prophesies in Matthew than the whole rest of the New Testament put together. In other words, Matthew is writing to people who had a two thousand years past. He draws on that, he assumes that they know that past, believe that past.


Then Mark was a Jerusalem Jew who became the disciple of Peter. His Gospel is sometimes called the Gospel of Peter. And knowing Peter, knowing Peter we may be sure that Mark did not improvise that whatever he said Peter kept an eye on. It is the shortest of the four Gospels and stresses Christ being the Son of God in human form. Why because where Matthew’s Gospel was written for the converts from Judaism, Mark’s Gospel was written for the converts from paganism. It would have been useless for Mark to quote the Old Testament. The pagan Romans never heard of the Old Testament. And the single most important thing which Peter, we may be sure, told Mark to bring out is that Jesus, though a man was the living God. Now this is of great importance, once we realize, as far as we know, Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome by the time Peter was there himself. And not all pagans of ancient or present history had this form of paganism, the pagans deified their living leaders. The emperors were worshipped as gods and consequently a god-man, or to use the title of that book which remember, we don’t recommend, was it five volumes, The Poem of the Man-God. The Romans believed that some men are gods. And consequently Mark’s approach was to bring out the divinity of a man, who is a man all right but this man is the Living God. Mark recounts more of Christ’s miracles than anyone else, especially telling us of Christ’s power over the evil spirits. There are more exorcisms by Christ in Mark’s Gospel than the whole rest of the Bible put together. That’s a lot of exorcisms. And then again, remember that Mark was writing for converts from paganism. If there’s one thing that is characteristic of all polytheism, and all paganism by the way is polytheistic, a plurality of gods. There are always in all pagan religions, good deities and evil deities. If there’s one thing that Christ wanted to bring out and Mark is at pains to bring out, that Christians do not believe in evil deities. They do indeed believe in evil spirits, in evil powers but Christ being the true God in human form had power over all evil spirits. And this by the way is to be seen in the context of what Peter in his Letters writes about the devil. The most extensive, elaborate and profoundest teaching of the New Testament about the devil is in St. Peter in his Letters and in Mark’s Gospel which we may be sure that Peter superintended. And Peter knew, that’s why Peter fell, the one destiny the first Pope denied his Master, he was a victim of the devil. If an apostle can fall prey to the devil who on earth cannot become a victim of the evil spirit. And the devil concentrates on big game. He concentrates as he has over the centuries, especially on bishops, on priests, on religious, the three favorite targets of the evil spirit over the centuries and today.


Luke was a disciple of St. Paul. There are many names given to Luke the evangelist. He is called the evangelist of Our Lady, the evangelist of the Holy Spirit, the evangelist of God’s mercy, the evangelist of Christ’s meekness and gentleness. There are more women in Luke’s Gospel than in the other three Gospels put together, the evangelist of women. And of course when I give retreats, and I have Gospel passages to meditate on for the retreatants, for women of course, what else, I don’t tell them I’m drawing mainly on Luke. He is also the Gospel of God’s universal salvific will. God wants everyone to be saved. Will everyone be saved? No. But not because God does not want everyone to be saved.

As an evangelist of Our Lady, tradition tells us that many things that Luke tells us he could have learned only from Our Lady herself. The Annunciation and Nativity narratives, no one else was there. How the Holy Spirit, he begins his Gospel with the Holy Spirit and he ends the Gospel on the Holy Spirit. And then as we know St. Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles, which are sometimes called the fifth Gospel, also called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit—The Acts of the Apostles and how the Holy Spirit is sent by Christ on Pentecost Sunday, narrated, by the way, by Luke in his Acts. In other words, the second mission as we call it is that of the Holy Spirit. The first mission was of Christ sent by the Father. The second mission the sending of the Third Person by Father and Son.

Thirdly, Luke gives us the story of Christ’s conception, birth, presentation in the temple, finding in the temple and the reference to Christ’s hidden life at Nazareth. And even that hidden life, we may be sure, since as we believe Our Lady did inform Luke about so many things in the life of Christ. Why didn’t she tell him about Christ’s well, years at Nazareth, why didn’t she, in fact, just about two verses. And if there was any one who knew what Christ was doing during His years in Nazareth it must have been His mother. But no, silence and this is where Luke’s Gospel which is absolutely silent on Christ’s hidden life is supplied for, or supplanted by the gospels that are not authentic, the apocrypha. One apocrypha gospel after another tells us long stories verse after verse of what the young Jesus did, for example, when He was studying His Jewish alphabet and in the middle of class He was asked by the teacher to well, give the alphabet and He began giving the alphabet and Jesus stopped in the middle of the alphabet so the teacher said, ‘go on don’t you know’ and then Jesus according to the apocrypha gospel told His teacher I will go on with the gospel, ‘I will go on with the alphabet, let’s make it the letter a-b-c-d-e then He stopped at e, ‘I will go on,’ said Jesus, ‘with f if you tell me what e means’. The young child telling his teacher, you explain the meaning of the alphabet. In any case, the apocrypha are not genuine, with all kinds of clever stories but are surely not authentic.


John as we know was the beloved disciple. He said so, though significantly, though he speaks of the disciple whom Jesus loved, that’s John. And everyone says, ‘and I am he’, John never does it, we know that through other sources. In any case, John’s Gospel is written towards the end of the first century. We don’t know exactly how many years, as many as 50 years separated the ending of the last Gospel before John—Matthew, Mark, Luke, before John wrote his Gospel. It’s purpose, and that by the way is why John was kept alive so long, remember, when Christ foretold how the Apostles would die and then they asked about John, what about him. And Christ told them it’s none of your business. Well John was kept alive for a purpose, he had writing to do. And this I can tell you, more than once I have told the Lord, “Lord, is that one reason you are keeping me still on earth, to write.” As I did last night and all the way in from California, writing. John wrote to his ripe old age. What was the purpose of his Gospel? It was and is to show that Jesus is true God and true Man and both must be seen. In John we have the longest miracle narratives. Mark has a lot of miracles but each miracle is just a verse or two. Not in John, long narratives. The clearest profession by Christ of His divinity, or professions, more than once, it’s in John’s Gospel the single most unqualified acceptance of the title of God occurs in John’s Gospel; first one before His death and resurrection and one after the resurrection. Before His resurrection remember Jesus was standing in front of a mob of Jews ready to stone Him, and asks them, “Why do you want to stone Me? Is it because of the good that I have done for you?” “No, it’s because you though man make yourself” remember, “equal to God.” And who remembers, and we did say it and it was taped, who remembers the Greek word that the mob used as quoted by John for equal, equal to God, what’s the Greek word? Who can finish the sentence? The capacity of the human mind to forget is… [Infinite]. Don’t forget that, at least remember that. Remember that we are forgetful. [Isos?] Please? [Isos?] It’s pronounced isos, isos in Greek, i-s-o-s from which we derive our isosceles triangle, where the (sedes?) the sides are equal, mathematically equal. And the Holy Spirit was inspiring John to use the word isos, you make yourself mathematically identical with God. Couldn’t be clearer. That’s why, by the way, there had to be a Euclid, the father of mathematics, to produce the language, am I clear? That’s why there had to be a Euclid, there had to be an Aristotle, there had to be a Phocylides, all the great minds are pre-Christian Greek to produce a vocabulary where every single word means exactly what it says. The Gospels could not have been, impossible, have been inspired in English, no way. And then after the resurrection the most unqualified profession of Christ’s, profession of Christ’s divinity was made by Thomas, remember when on the eighth day when Christ appeared and then Thomas said, “My Lord and My God.” It is in John also that we have the promise of the Holy Eucharist. Why? Because by the time John wrote his Gospel there were heretics who denied the Real Presence. If there is one thing we’d better not be scandalized by it is the heretics of our day, there have always been heretics. Always? Always. Always? Always. Even Christ had His own heretics. And John even, remember, said, “His own disciples walked away, ‘This is too much’”. As I think I’ve told you, the two principle causes for the most serious crisis in the Church’s two thousand years of history, we’re living in it, the two main reasons are the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the indissolubility of Christian marriage. And all heretics somehow fall in those two categories. [Father may I ask a question?] Normally, normally I don’t have questions during class but let’s make an exception. [Relative to proving to a non-Catholic about the Real Presence I have used the example of the people leaving Christ ‘this is a hard saying, who can believe it’, this is what they said to Christ when He said, ‘this is my Body and my Blood.’ I have said and I’d like to know if I am speaking correctly, that Christ being God would have had to say to these people because He was not speaking in parable or allegory, He was speaking straight out, if they misunderstood what he said when He was talking straight out, being God He would had to have cleared it out because He would not deceive them. Is that correct?] Yes. That’s right. And that is why I do not know of a single Protestant biblical scholar, I do not know of one and I know of many in different countries, I do not know of a single Protestant biblical scholar who holds that the fourth Gospel was written by St. John.

Copyright © 2005 Institute on Religious Life

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon
gave to the Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
PO. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

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