N. B. This is a Gospel reflection I shared during a communion service at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Decatur, Georgia, on the evening of April 17, 2023. The Gospel reading comes from John 3:1-8, the story of Nicodemus’s night-time visit to Jesus.
Nicodemus is a smart man. In today’s Gospel he is described as a “Pharisee” but also a “Ruler of the Jews.” We learn later in the Gospel that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of seventy-one Jewish elders who met in the Temple and functioned almost like the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. In other words, this was not just some ordinary dude who was checking Jesus out. He was an important, influential figure, and perhaps even someone with a public profile. If he lived today, he would not only have a public page on Facebook, he would have his very own Wikipedia entry. Actually, he does have his own Wikipedia page!
So is it any surprise that this Alpha Male of ancient Jerusalem would come to meet with Jesus under the cover of night? I am reminded of a story that a friend of mine who was an activist in Belfast told me about the early days of the peace talks in Northern Ireland. Years before the ceasefire of 1994 and the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998, leaders of both the Catholic and Protestant factions began to meet secretly to discuss the possibility of peace. Those early meetings were dangerous: if the leaders of either side were exposed as negotiating with “the enemy,” they would become a target for assassination by the extremists of their own side. So the earliest peace talks took place at a Catholic monastery where the Protestant leaders would come — under the cover of darkness — to meet and negotiate with the leaders of the IRA, who also needed the cloak of nightfall to protect them.
So here is Nicodemus, seeking Jesus out in the safety of the dark. Some people might think he was being cowardly, but I think he was being shrewd. He was a politician, which means he had his enemies. He had nothing to gain, especially before he even met Jesus, from giving his enemies just one more reason to attack him — to publicly criticize his judgment for consorting with this rabble-rousing prophet from Galilee. Really, the most practical thing for Nicodemus to do would have been to ignore Jesus altogether. But like those Northern Irish leaders who realized that peace was more important than their personal safety, Nicodemus knew that there was something important in Jesus’s message — something even worth putting his career on the line. But he took that risk prudently. And let’s not forget: prudence is a virtue.
Jesus rewards Nicodemus with his zen-like teaching about being born again. Many Christians have interpreted that in many ways over the years, but I think we can all agree that the metaphor of a new birth, a transformed life, is really at the heart of what Jesus was offering Nicodemus then — and us, today. And this new or second birth is like the wind: we cannot tell where it comes from or where it’s going, which is to say, it’s a mystery. We are invited to step into this mystery, where our old images of God and our old ways of understanding God are stripped away, giving us a new appreciation of the One who is the source of all love, all life, all mercy, and all forgiveness.
It is existentially impossible for me to stand up before you and give you a reflection on the Gospel without at least one reference to the great mystics of the Christian tradition. And Nicodemus’s night-time journey to meet with Jesus reminds me of the great poem and book by Saint John of the Cross, called The Dark Night of the Soul. The “dark night of the soul” has practically become a cliché in contemporary spiritual writing. But for Saint John of the Cross, it’s a powerful image of what happens when God strips away from us everything that gets in the way of our loving Union with God — even our false or limited images of God. When we enter the dark night, we are asked to let go of anything and everything that comes between us and God. That’s a terrifying request — and yet, what lies on the other side of the darkness is the infinite light of divine love and grace. It’s a nighttime journey I hope all of us will find the courage, by God’s grace, to undertake.
Nicodemus shows up twice more in the Gospel of John. When other members of the Sanhedrin begin to publicly denounce Jesus, it is Nicodemus who reminds them that judgment can only be issued after a fair trial. And after the crucifixion, it is Nicodemus who joins with Joseph of Arimathea to care for the body before it is sealed in the tomb. It’s lovely to think of this important public figure using the night to make a careful inquiry into who Jesus was, and what he said — and then finding the grace to persevere in following Jesus all the way to the very end. May that same grace transform all our lives.
Featured image: “Jesus and Nicodemus” by African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Public domain.