Based on a Dreams Retreat by Rev. Colin Andrews
Dreamwork in New Testament Times:
The roots of the Christian religion lie in the religion of the Hebrew people. But, with the birth and teaching of Jesus, and later of the Christian founders, a new element entered the consciousness of humanity. What was this element, and what was its relation to God who speaks through dreams and visions?
Perhaps the crucial turning point in the evolution from the Old to the New Testament that Jesus brought into the world was that he taught a religion of which the foundation was inner experience. Not only do we have statements such as, ‘The Kingdom of God is within’, but we also have all the parables, which emphasize inner experience, as well as Jesus' own example relating to God as Abba a personal Father. Could Jesus have been suggesting that God not only works in history, the outer events and the religious community, as was the dominant Jewish belief of the times, but that God also works through inner experience, not just in the prophets, but in everyone? This is relevant to our exploration of one of the most central experiences of the inner world, the dream, its meaning and significance.
In the New Testament books, dreams are mentioned most frequently in the Gospel of Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. Visions and other spiritual visitations, which possess an authority similar to dreams, are mentioned in all the Synoptic Gospels, as well as John's Gospel and in Revelation.
Stories around the birth of Jesus contain much dream and vision material. According to some biblical scholars, the infancy narratives, at least as written documents, are to be dated after the time of the apostles. In any case, they may be treated as religious statements from early Christianity.
Thus, these infancy narratives are informative, for they reveal attitudes towards dreams and visions, and the uses of these inner experiences in religious teaching and practice during the first centuries of the Church. Joseph’s dream to marry Mary is a good example of this. . (Matthew 1:18-25)
We are not encouraging people to observe their dreams and carry them out literally and blindly, especially when they seem to be suggesting behaviour which is immoral, embarrassing, anti-social, or against the laws and regulations of the Church or government. Nor are we implying that this is what Joseph did. What the dream seems to be asking of Joseph is to look for and follow the highest value in the situation. He is to protect his wife and future mother of the child. Also when his dream is viewed as a symbolic experience, it suggests that the over-riding factor was the creation of new birth by God’s intervention in human life, which is exactly what happened through Jesus' life and teaching.
The infancy narratives contain other examples of dreams and visionary experiences, which are treated as coming from God and inviting a response. In response, the dreamers often take action. Thus, Mary acts on the angelic visitor's message by taking a journey to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1: 36-40). Joseph acts on the warnings given in his dreamt and moves his family away from possible harm (Matthew 2: 13, 29, 22), the shepherds act on the angelic message that a Saviour has been born and go in search of a baby in a manger (Luke 2: 9, 15), and the wise men receive and respond to a warning in a dream not to tell Herod where Jesus may be found (Matthew 2: 12).
An important point to be made in each of these cases is that the Gospel narrator is often telling us only the essential elements of the dream for evangelical purposes. The Gospel writers are neither historians nor dreamwork researchers. Perhaps the dreams and visions originally experienced were indeed as clear and explicit as they are reported in the Gospel texts. More likely however, the narrator is merely reporting the meaning of the dream as its symbolic material came to be understood by the dreamer upon reflection. Certainly Joseph seems to a very proficient dream observer, since it seems to be the way God communicated most frequently with him. Perhaps Joseph's dreams were: filled with symbolic imagery as most of our dreams are, and Joseph is merely sharing with us the results of his dreamwork through which he learned for example, to flee to Egypt, return to Israel, and settle in Nazareth again.
We are interested in having symbolic material come alive meaningfully for people, whether it is experienced through Biblical imagery and religious practice or as dreams and visions which occur spontaneously to people challenging and gifting their spiritual life.
The results are for every person to evaluate in relation to themselves and God. Working with symbolic experience as coming from God has a rich tradition in the Old and New Testament and is revitalizing a growing number of people's lives today.
The prophets spoke in images, as well as in concepts. Jesus himself did much of his teaching in ‘story-pictures’ or parables. While we have no direct record of Jesus' dreams, we do have an excellent record of his parables. Since they are largely teachings in symbolic form which require working with, just as dreams do, in order to arrive at their meaning for ourselves, it is quite possible that Jesus created his parables out of what God sent him - his dreams, his visions, his prayer and meditation experiences. In other words, as Jesus' divine Source communicated to him in symbols, he in turn often stoke to people in symbols.
There is a controversial passage in which Jesus is asked why he speaks in parables. (Matthew 13: 10-17, Mark 4: 10-12, Luke 8: 9-10). His reply was that he used parables so that only those who had ears to hear would understand. And what gives certain people ears to understand the language of symbols?
Certainly the willingness to follow truth, which is revealed, but probably also a certain facility and practice in working with symbolic material. In Old Testament times, the evince of new spiritual revelation and direction often included experiences of God communicated through imagery. In the New Testament, Jesus continues this symbolic tradition. Symbolic experience is also clearly present in the appearance of the Christ to the disciples after the resurrection, and in the experiences of Paul and other new members of the young Church.
Implications for living a contemporary spiritual life include developing an ability to work with symbolic communications, especially in order to understand those communications that comes to us in dreams and visions.
Recommended books on Dreams and Dreamwork
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