Sometime ago we considered the Greek meaning of the name Nicholas, that is “victory of the people.” The word nikodemos is similar. It means the same but a different word is used for “people” (demos) that is the same word that is the root of the English word demographics, for example. Nicodemus was leader of the Jews, a religious leader who defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin and provided some of the expensive things that were used to embalm the body of Jesus. He was most likely an acquaintance of Joseph of Arimathea and we know he witnessed some of the miracles or signs that Jesus performed near Jerusalem.
This Sunday we are presented one more time with the familiar passage of the interview which is one of my favorite parts of the Gospel of John. As we read, we find a number of symbols intertwined. From meditating on passages like this one, I got the intuition of what I call verticality for lack of a better word. That intuition is gradually opening a window into a deeper sense of Scripture that I had not noticed before. I do not mean to say that I have discovered anything new. I bet some of the Saints and Fathers have already seen this more clearly. It just so happens that I did not find the patristic explanation yet.
Scripture has the four classic levels of interpretation: Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. Those levels are expanded in detail by the Fathers. I like to “catch” the imago that jumps from the page when we imagine the situation, the scene in which the teaching is presented. In this case, Nicodemus comes to Jesus “at night” and that awakes our perception to the light/darkness theme that John develops in his Gospel. But we will visit that later on. What I am sensing more and more is something deeper, perhaps the intersection of our human horizontal plane of action with the vertical divine plane of action, the intersection of both aptly symbolized by the Cross; the encounter of the human and the divine in the nature of Christ, the unfathomable mystery of the hypostatic union. I can’t yet write anything about that intuition but as soon as I find one of the Fathers touching the subject, I will learn and share what I’ve found. So far, it is only a wonderful moment of discovery. My ignorance is a way to have that beautiful sense of the new, like that of babies that learn the wonders of splashing water while taking their first bath.
Nicodemus and Jesus sit down by the garden at John’s house. The two lines intersect. The master of the Law of Israel is a man accustomed to have his two feet on the ground. He is a lawyer, he is a good Jew, he deals with the realities of his time and his social position. But something has caught his attention: that Teacher from Galilee that young John and some women of the Zebedees are following with inexplicable devotion. That worries Nicodemus and makes him investigate. He understands quickly why they are so devoted. That man opens the Law to the senses of the commoners like no other teacher ever. His demeanor and discourse transmit authority and … he produces signs, miraculous signs. Withered members of the human body return to a healthy shape; lepers come to the Temple crying and praising God for this new Rabbi that cured them. Even hardened sinners come to present their sacrifices, prostitutes abandon their sinful ways and even tax collectors become merciful and kind. He has seen Romans … ROMANS! enthralled listening to the Law and then quickly abandoning their disgusting customs.
So he decides to talk to Jesus discreetly. Some powerful religious leaders are irked by the clear condemnations of the Galilean. Some envy the crowds that follow him, the simple appeal of his teachings, the wonderful works of a man who some believe was born in not so clear circumstances. Some even fear the Galilean could be the Messiah in disguise … he has entered so suddenly into the public scene, like lightning. No one really seems to know exactly where he comes from.
Nicodemus horizontality is going to meet Jesus’ verticality. Accustomed to the plains, Nicodemus is about to be invited to climb the dizzying heights of Heaven.
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’” (John 3:1-21)
The meeting happens after the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, the one that follows the expulsion of the coin exchangers from the Temple. By the way Jesus and the “teacher of the Law” talk, we can guess that Nicodemus is perhaps informally representing those who “believed because of the signs” that Jesus performed around the time of the Passover festival. Although Nicodemus is inclined to believe in Jesus, his faith is still incipient. That is why Jesus says “you people don’t believe …” Some of those whom Nicodemus represents are not yet ready to follow the new Rabbi although they can see the hand of God in the spectacular miracles that Jesus performs as signs of his divine mission. For further impact, Jesus expands the theme of his discourse by saying: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” The phrase takes the scope of his mission to the entire world showing to Nicodemus that, the unbelief of those who should recognize in Jesus the light of God, is in reality not very different than the unbelief of the nations who have not received the Law. In general, Israel is as estranged from God as the whole world is. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, a night that covers the whole world. The mission of Jesus is to penetrate that darkness and bring the light of God to mankind but first, he has to bring it to Israel and to leaders like Nicodemus.
The destiny of Israel is to be a light to the nations but Nicodemus comes at night. Nicodemus is a “teacher of Israel” but he finds the words of Jesus incomprehensible. Jesus quickly goes to the root of the problem: the likes of Nicodemus cannot go past the surface meaning of the parables of Jesus: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? ” Jesus has descended to Nicodemus earthly level, to his horizontality so to speak. Jesus has artfully used parables about common earthly things to explain the things of Heaven and yet … some are confused by the parable and cannot penetrate into the meaning of those things Jesus is presenting them with.
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” inquires the “teacher of Israel” still attached to the familiar ground. The parable itself should reveal to him (and to us) the profound significance of Jesus’ teaching. When we are born, when we exit our mother’s womb, then we must learn to breathe, we see light for the first time and discover we have vision, the muffled sounds of the world around us reaching us in the womb are now hitting our ears with full force. The oneness of our world in the womb ends abruptly and we discover this strange thing: “the others” and some of those others are handling us briefly until we hear the familiar sound of our mother’s heartbeat in a complete different context. Then we discover hunger, and perhaps pain, and so many other new things that assault our senses all at once. We are in a different world.
When the mystery of human destiny is finally presented to us by God, we will leave this womb we call Earth. We will be plunged into something truly different and our soul will be challenged again to grow fast, to comprehend what now is incomprehensible. The very nature of things around us will change to something we simply cannot imagine here and now. Jesus is trying to ease Nicodemus into a new territory: Israel will be reborn as the Church and the final universal mission of the nation will be revealed: “My house will be a house of prayer to all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) Furthermore, the terrifying reality of the Cross has to be explained as the gate that will effect that transformation both in the world and in the individual soul of each believer. That is a mighty lesson to learn in only one night and we should not look down on poor Nicodemus’ simplicity but celebrate how he valiantly followed the call of Heaven that lead him to the Teacher while still “in the night.”
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Those words of Jesus, said in Aramaic, contain an echo of the story of Genesis that Nicodemus perhaps recognized. “The wind blows where it wants …” Remember that the words “wind” and “spirit” are interchangeable in Jesus and Nicodemus’ language. The image harks back to Genesis:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God fluttered over the face of the waters.” Other translations render: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth— and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” Because Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, darkness covers his still formless faith. In front of him is Jesus: a great light, a mighty wind whose doctrine is sweeping the nation. Nicodemus mind is challenged to grasp even the smallest part of the Galilean’s words but all he can do is try to keep his feet on the ground. He falls silent but he keeps holding on to the signs. “Surely this man is from God … oh, I wish I was not this thick … I wish I could understand what he is talking about …” Oh, dear Nicodemus … you are not alone. You are simply threading the path of every sincere believer who recognizes the voice of the Master, the Logos, and is humbly reduced to his own true size before the majestic heights of his Truth.
After Nicodemus falls silent, Jesus explains the whole Gospel to him in a few words. The necessity of rebirth, the Cross, the love of the Triune God who sent the Son into the world … all, absolutely all of the Gospel is there synthetized. Nicodemus will understand it later, as years go by and he becomes a new Nicodemus, ready to climb the celestial Mount Zion following the Lamb.
The light/darkness theme dominates the discourse of Jesus. Nicodemus is the exact opposite of Judas Iscariot. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” In the last Passover, Judas Iscariot “goes into the darkness” but although Nicodemus returns home under cover of darkness, he is still holding on to his sense of the divine mission of Jesus and the signs. The same signs failed to deter the Iscariot from becoming a traitor and accessory to the greatest crime the world will ever see. Judas holds on to the material gain because that is all he can love. On the contrary, Nicodemus has been called to a new stage of his love of God’s Law. We know it because he will go to defend Jesus in trial, and later he will lovingly provide the myrrh and aloe to embalm Christ’s tortured body.
Our Nicodemus moment
We are living on the other end of the mission. The Church is in eclipse. Darkness surrounds us as we approach our own Passion. We thread the familiar horizontal ground of our ordinary lives. The firm resolve of Nicodemus to follow God no matter where He goes should be an example for us. On the other side of these awful days there is a new reality, a gift from God, a new kind of life, a world renewed in Divine Mercy. We will be born into that world: all of us at the same time. We will experience first hand all those things we have tried unsuccessfully to imagine because we do not have the mind of God. We are as puzzled as Nicodemus contemplating the enormity of the Divine Grace awaiting us.
Imagine the joy!