Who is Nicodemus?
Nicodemus, we are told, was both a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. Pharisees were devout adherents of the Law. Pharisaic Judaism had developed during the period of Exile, when the Jews were captives to Babylon and unable to worship at Temple in Jerusalem according to the dictates of the Torah. Thus, alienated from their land and prevented from offering sacrifice to God in the manner that had epitomized Jewish public worship, Pharisaism--that is, knowledge of and compliance with, every letter of the Law, as given to Moses and spelled out in the Torah-- developed as a way to maintain Jewish religious identity at a time when both their civilization and religious practices were suppressed. It is no stretch to say that the Pharisees helped preserve Judaism from obliteration, a fact that would become doubly true upon destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD at the hand of the Romans.
The Sanhedrin, by contrast, was a body of Jewish elders who oversaw administration of the Law. It served as the Jewish high court, as well, and we see the Council serving in that capacity when Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy, following his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thus for Nicodemus to be a member of these two influential groups is to say that he was an individual of considerable standing among the Jewish community in Jerusalem. What’s more, the Gospel author informs us that he was a wealthy man. Later on in the Johannine narrative, we see Nicodemus purchasing myrrh and fine ointments for the body of Jesus in preparation for burial. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, it is Nicodemus who arranges for Jesus to receive a proper resting place, once he is taken down from the cross. The fact that Nicodemus could both afford to pay for such arrangements as well as convince the local authorities to entrust the body to his oversight attests, once again, that he was a man of substantial affluence as well as influence.
What does Jesus say to Nicodemus?
The scene with Nicodemus starts at the beginning of Chapter 3 in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus (who appears only in the Fourth Gospel) is depicted as coming to Jesus “at night.” As with every particular way that something is phrased in the Gospel of John, this brief descriptor bears enormous, and multi-layered, significance. For starters, we can conclude that Nicodemus is afraid to be seen in public with Jesus. After all, as we have established, he is a member of two groups--the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin--portrayed throughout the Gospel as being opposed to Jesus’ public ministry. Thus, for Nicodemus to be seen with Jesus during the day would be to lend apparent approval to Jesus’ teachings. Surely, this would spark controversy among his peers. And so Nicodemus comes to visit with Jesus at night, presumably in the hope that he will be able to sneak in undetected, thereby learning more about this Jesus without risking his public reputation.
But on another level, the Gospel of John plays constantly with metaphor and symbol. Throughout the Gospel, we see a contrast between light and dark, spirit and flesh, this world and the next. That Nicodemus is presented as coming “at night” communicates that he had not yet come to comprehend the truth of Jesus’ message. Recall that in the Gospels, Jesus describes himself as “the Light of the World.” Too, Jesus offers mystical formulations about how the Light came into the world, in order to conquer the darkness, and how those living in the Light lead more fulfilling lives. And so, later in John’s Gospel, when Nicodemus appears to defend Jesus against accusations leveled at him by his fellow Jewish leaders, he does so in the literal light of day.
We are able to see a clear progression from one who comes to Jesus at night, that is in the darkness of not-yet-knowing the Truth, to one who, having learned more about Jesus, emerges into the Light, and who can testify to the Light. In the scene from today’s Readings, this theme of Light and dark is a central motif, along with the famous quotation one sees held aloft on posters at sporting events--John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
In this, foundational truth about the Incarnation, Jesus reveals to us that God’s essential nature is one of love. And that the purpose of God’s entrance into the world is not to judge nor condemn, but to save. God’s primary motivation for interacting with the human race, particularly through the unique revelation that is God’s own son, Jesus, is one of truth, love, and redemption.
So what does this have to do with us?
We often wonder what our God is really like. Is God a grey-bearded old man sitting on a throne surrounded by angels? Is God a God of wrath and judgment and anger, as God has so often been portrayed? In today’s passage, as throughout the Gospel of John, we are told that our God is, in God’s most basic nature, a God of love. A God whose love is so over-flowing and other-centered that God gave of God’s self in order to provide for our salvation.
We utter these words about God, i.e. that God is love, that Jesus came to save us, that Jesus shows us the way to Heaven, with such frequency that they may, ironically, have lost some of their meaning. In much the same way that, having said the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, the particular words cease to captivate us, to challenge us, to transform us by their inherently radical assertion... so, too, can our creedal formulations about God be robbed of their potency through mindless repetition. We stand in Mass each week and profess that we, “Believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth...” and in “One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only, begotten Son of the Father...” but we usually do so with such breathless rapidity that we rarely pause to unpack the density of the claims contained therein.
Today’s Gospel compels us to take seriously the central claims of our faith, namely, that our God is, first and foremost, a God of love. And that God’s love for us is so abundant that it spills forth into Creation, most powerfully in the form of God’s only Son, Jesus, who epitomizes for us the absoluteness of this self-sacrificing love.
There may be days that we feel completely unloved or unloveable. That, by the world’s standards, we do not measure up. Unwanted by a love interest. Rejected by a job or graduate school. Failed, either by the external metrics of an exam, or by our own internal expectations of holiness. In those moments, the words of today’s Gospel ought to be the Light that conquers the darkness of sin, doubt, fear, depression, and lack of self-worth. Today’s reminder that we are SO loved by God that God would sacrifice anything for us, is the Truth to which Jesus came to testify. It is the mind-blowing, life-changing core tenet of our faith: that even when the world would appear to reject us, dismiss us, or otherwise invalidate us... that our God loves us beyond all earthly comprehension.
Questions for Reflection
1. Are there ways in which you practice your faith “at night,” that is, in secret? Do you ever fear that your peers will judge you if they find out about your beliefs?
2. There are many images for Jesus in John’s Gospel: the Light of the World; the Lamb who is slain; the Good Shepherd; the Vine (and we, the branches); the Way, the Truth, and the Life... are there any of these images, in particular, that resonate with you? Why so?
3. What does the truth of today’s reading, as captured so poetically in John 3:16, mean for you, on a practical, daily basis? Do you feel loved by God? How do you experience that love? Do you ever struggle to experience that love?