John’s Gospel, perhaps the most poetic and thematic Gospel, has one goal: to bring all people to belief in Christ Jesus. From the opening prologue to the final miracles of Jesus, the sequence of significant signs calls us to wade into the waters of faith. The themes of light and darkness saturate this Gospel. Simply, darkness symbolizes those who have not yet come to faith; and light, those who have. Christ’s light penetrates false thinking, overcomes blindness (both physical and spiritual), heals the paralytic, raises Lazarus from the tomb and casts mercy upon the sinner.
Though it may seem easy to grasp hold of the faith via a true encounter with Christ, as Nicodemus experiences in this weekend’s Gospel, it is not all that easy. We pretty much stay stuck in our world views and it takes time and prayer to break out of darkness into the light of Christ. Life challenges our faith.
Nicodemus, a fervent Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus at night. He comes at night symbolically showing that he is about to meet the light of Christ and be invited to hear the truth of salvation. He lives in the darkness of historical and religious antiquities and, like every Jewish leader, longed to know the best way to enter the Kingdom of God. He comes to Jesus because he realizes that at some level Jesus is from God. Nicodemus’ religious perspective will be challenged by a man who really has nothing to do with the leadership in the Temple. Jesus has no validating papers for what he does. Yet, Nicodemus is curious and operating at a level of spiritual depth that urges him to come to Jesus at night.
Jesus knows his intent intuitively and before Nicodemus has a chance to ask it, Jesus tells him that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, one must first be born from above, be born of the Spirit. The response throws our dear ruler into a fog. How can this happen: to be born from above? But Jesus presses on, pointing to the winds of the Spirit and the Exodus experience that required God’s intervention when the Seraph serpents were killing the Israelites in the desert. The sculpted bronze serpent, representing death, would be lifted upon a pole and those who looked upon it would be healed. So, too, Jesus would one day be lifted up on the cross, taking upon himself sin and death, and those who looked upon him would be saved.
In essence, the darkness of our sin, our corporate sin, our systemic sins, our personal addictions, our tenacious hatreds and murmurings would be cast upon the innocent, the Incarnate one, the Holy Son of God. He would become sin, entering the darkness of suffering. And we, who look upon Christ impaled upon the cross, believing in him, will have salvation. Jesus speaks the incandescent words to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”
Sounds simple. But according to the chronicler of Israel’s history, the human heart is quickly smashed by infidelities and countless ways we turn away from God. At our Ash Wednesday service, the lector read the Prayers of the Faithful pleading with God for strength, “for we are a nation that eats too much, drinks too much, buys too much and watches too much TV.” The petition called forth a purging of the excesses in life. The people of Israel, according to the historian, turned their backs upon the messengers of God and opted for a life that would forget the Sabbath, that holy sanctuary of time given over to God alone. The result would be 70 years of exile; time for a nation to ponder its infidelities and turn back to God.
Sadly, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark and he left in the dark. It’s true, we need time to allow our encounters with Christ to percolate in our own personal lives. There are glimpses of Nicodemus slowly coming to faith for in the end, Nicodemus helped bury Jesus (John 19: 39-40) and brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint his body. He helped Joseph of Arimathea lay the body of Jesus in the tomb.
Perhaps, in Jesus’ darkest hour, Nicodemus saw the light.
Mary Matestic is a retired pastoral associate, teacher, writer and spiritual director in Milwaukee.