In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
One of the striking dimensions of today’s Gospel is John’s conspicuous mention of the fact that it occurred “at night.” John’s is the most richly symbolic of the four gospels – and light and darkness are symbols used and reused throughout John. Indeed the Gospel opens with a famous excursus on light and darkness – In Jesus, says John, was life, and the life was the light of men. “And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (John 1.4-5).
So in today’s passage we find Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. This is an image of Nicodemus coming to Jesus with a darkened heart and mind. In Jesus was life, and the life was the light of men. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus as yet unenlightened by the divine life that is in him. He comes out of the darkness of the world, the darkness of ignorance about God, and preeminently about what God had done in sending Jesus into the world.
And Nicodemus’s first words to the Lord manifest exactly this darkness. He says “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Everything old is new again. And this has become a common trope in our world: Jesus is a great teacher, like the Buddha and Mohammad; he is a healer, a preacher of peace, a revolutionary promoter of social justice, and so forth. Our world says to Jesus, with Nicodemus, “We know that you are a teacher come from God.”
But the Lord’s words to Nicodemus cut right to the heart of this darkness. Jesus doesn’t bother defending himself. He doesn’t bother with correcting Nicodemus on his doctrinal error. He doesn’t say, “No, actually Nicodemus, I am God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made,” etc. Instead Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Look, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus could not see the Kingdom of God, which was standing right in front of him. Remember, as I often point out, that the Kingdom of God really means the REIGN of God, the dominion of God’s sovereignty – the sphere within which God’s will is carried into effect, where God’s will is DONE. And that Jesus is HIMSELF the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the one in whom the Father’s will is done perfectly and completely. And so when Jesus comes close, the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Jesus is the Kingdom of God. But “unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus sees in Jesus a clever teacher, perhaps even a sublime teacher, the Dalai Lama of his day, someone who teaches interesting and helpful things about how to live ethically. But Nicodemus can’t seem to see that the Kingdom of God and God HIMSELF, is standing in front of him. He comes to Jesus at night, in darkness.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a great teacher, we know that you are a wonder-worker, a prophet – we know that you utter divine truths.” And Jesus says gently “Nicodemus, you have to be born again to see the Kingdom of God.”
And Nicodemus is incredulous. “What are you talking about? Born again? How can you be born again?” And the Lord says “You must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
As soon as water and spirit and light are mentioned, the beginning of the Bible springs to mind – in the book of Genesis, where for the first time in the Biblical narrative (indeed at the very beginning) there is again water, and Spirit, and darkness and light. Recall the first verses of the first book of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the SPIRIT of God was moving over the face of the WATERS. And God said, ‘Let there be LIGHT” (Gen. 1.1-3).
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must become part of a new creation; he must be recreated by the Spirit. And just as surely as the spirit of God brooded over the waters of chaos at the creation of the world, so the Spirit of God moves over the waters of Baptism – forming those who are becoming members of the Lord’s Body into new and spiritual creatures.
St. Paul writes “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6.3f).
Christ’s coming into the world means the possibility of new life for an old and weary humanity – and not just a life like the old one, but newer – but, as Paul says, Christ is risen from the dead, NEVER TO DIE AGAIN. The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus make possible a new KIND of life, a life that, above all else, over which death has no ultimate power. Jesus means the possibility of living in the truth of God himself, in the confession of Jesus as Lord, in whom is LIFE, a life that is light to mankind. And so Jesus means illumination – and not merely the ability to SEE the Kingdom of God, but to follow Jesus and ENTER it and live in it. Jesus doesn’t just illuminate us, but he empowers us to WALK in the light, and to be filled with it ourselves (cf. John 11.9-10). Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (John 8.12).
Nicodemus is an interesting character. And he appears one more time in John’s Gospel, at the very end. He is one of the disciples who buries Jesus. Nicode’mus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, comes at the end bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. “They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there,” (John 19.39ff).
The womb and the tomb. It is fitting that this disciple who hears the message of the possibility and the necessity of illumination through rebirth by water and the Spirit – this disciple is there at the tomb, seeing the material condition for our rebirth, that God’s anointed had come to earth in order to DIE, to take on all the sickness and sin that seeks to destroy us, to BEAR IT in his person, to die under its weight, and to be laid in a tomb… by Nicodemus. All so that we might not walk in darkness, but so that we could have the light of life – by being made members of Jesus’ crucified and risen Body – “the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
For us, this means bearing witness to Jesus, showing him to those around us (inviting them to mass), and living as Jesus lived – in the power of God’s Spirit – being ministers of God’s reconciliation and peace, sharing in Jesus’ victory on the cross over every kind of evil, and death itself, and living no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again (cf. first Preface of Lent).
But the enlightenment Jesus offers comes not just with duties, with a way of life, but with privileges too. For the past two weeks, at our Friday Lenten devotions, Fr. Robert Barron has discoursed on “finding the center,” which, in the end, is the same thing as the enlightenment about which Jesus speaks today. Having Jesus at the center of your being, being filled with the divine life that is his gift, it means finding the “unum necessarium,” the “one thing needful” – it means being untroubled by the vicissitudes of fortune and chance. It means resting secure in God’s own invincible peace, and walking through the dark pilgrimage of life in the world without stumbling or growing weary.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (John 8.12).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.