Friday, 26 May 2017
ST. JOHN 3: 1-21
Before starting reflections on the above, the final verses of chapter 2:23-25:
While He was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in His name when they saw the signs He was doing. But Jesus would not trust Himself to them because He knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He Himself understood it well.
Once again St. John is pointing at the critical event towards which Jesus is heading, Passover, the final one Jesus will celebrate on earth and which will usher in His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Pointedly as well the last line: He Himself understood it well, speaks volumes about the observational lived experience of Jesus’ some thirty years of hidden life among us.
Jesus’ understanding us well is exemplified by the intensity of His compassion.
Indeed, Jesus understands us so well that if we do not know Jesus we will remain incomprehensible to our very self.
The attraction of various self-help books, gurus, other religions, facial creams, gyms and the plethora of gizmos for sale promising the perfect body, cosmetic surgery, cults etc., even the plastering of tattoos on the body, all these ultimately are coming from a desperate need to find self.
Be since we have been created by love Himself, in His image and likeness, we cannot find the real, the true self, outside of intimate communion with Him.
The sooner we become exhausted by alternatives and turn towards Him our faces will be radiant with the recognition we seek for we shall see ourselves in the only mirror which does not invert the image, not distort – the mirror of His loving eyes gazing upon us!
3:1-2: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night………..
In his novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Dostoevsky has a chapter, entitled The Grand Inquisitor, which some commentators see as a mockery of the Roman Catholic Church, but given the unfortunate reality that all Christendom, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, has across the millennia produced numerous saints and martyrs, likewise, given it is human beings who make up the Body of Christ on earth, there have been, are, always will be those, both clergy and laity, within Christianity, who take advantage to feather their own nests with power, close mindedness, and all the other vices in opposition to authentic, Gospel rooted, imitation of Christ’s holiness: it is not a bad thing to have the sins, failures, compromises of Christians exposed. It should be occasion of re-conversion!
Ultimately the character Ivan seeks to explain his poem, The Grand Inquisitor, a poem which shows the Cardinal Inquisitor, having Christ, who has returned and once more is loving, healing, affirming people: arrested.
The Cardinal comes at night to visit Jesus in His cell.
The dialogue between the two is fascinating, a type of exegesis of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, which the Cardinal asserts throughout it is really all about Christ giving us choice, that is free will: and a big mistake.
The real power of the ‘poem’ comes at the end when, the Grand Inquisitor having finished not merely challenging but indicting Christ, Christ in silence approaches, and gently kisses the old man.
Instantly Christ is set free but is told never to return.
Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, may well have been of the ilk of the Inquisitor, certainly he too approaches Christ at night and he too will challenge, coming close to indicting Christ, but the outcome is very different indeed!
v. 1-2, cont.:…..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 are doing unless God is with him.”
Like as not Nicodemus is not doing so here, but there are echoes in the way he speaks, of what many of the enemies of Jesus will do throughout His life, namely, make statements or ask questions which are, in essence, traps guised as sincere enquiry.
While addressing Jesus with the honorific ‘rabbi’ and declaring Jesus to be a teacher who ‘has come from God’, neither Nicodemus, nor St. John the evangelist, identify the ‘we’ in: ‘we know that’.
It may well be that Nicodemus has just come from some meeting of the leading Pharisees where the issue of Jesus has been discussed, perhaps in such a way that Nicodemus’ curiosity has been peeked.
v.3=Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
It is striking that Jesus at first glance does not appear to be telling Nicodemus directly by asserting, for example, that He, Jesus, has indeed come from God and that God is indeed with Him.
However, looked at more closely that is what Jesus is asserting for implied in His statement is indeed a pointing towards His Incarnation.
v. 4= Nicodemus replies immediately with a question that contains within it a challenge: Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot re-enter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
When people express to me a struggle with faith and prayer I remind them that God who is Love, precisely because He loves us, as Jesus does here, welcomes our need to question, to challenge, to express whatever we struggle with or pains us.
We have the example of Abraham in Genesis 18 arguing with God so that some from Sodom and Gomorrah might be spared, the tenderness of Jesus Risen walking with, listening to the painful confusion of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and taking the time to explain to them the truth of what has happened as St. Luke [24:13ff] tells us.
Here too in Nicodemus’ question we see something else which is very important, namely questioning which comes out of a search for faith, for truth, for the One we seek, for as St. Augustine reminds us every human being is restless until we have communion of love and rest within Love Himself.
It behooves us then as Christians to have attentive, patient, compassionate hearts and when someone expresses an opinion or asks a question about matters of faith NOT to be in a rush to convince or win some argument but to truly hear and reply with the same compassionate and gentle patience as shown by Jesus both to Nicodemus and the Emmaus disciples.
Vs. 5-8= Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus is giving a teaching on Baptism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that: Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit…..the door which gives access to the other sacraments……….it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which ‘ no one can enter the kingdom of God.’ 
v.9= Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can this happen?”
That this visit and conversation with Jesus occurs long before the post-Pentecost teaching of the Apostles Nicodemus’ question is quite reasonable. Yet Jesus challenges Nicodemus because after all Nicodemus is a learned man of faith:
v. 10= Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?
Then, reminiscent of the encounter and conversation between Jesus risen, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus [cf. Lk. 24:13ff], immediately Jesus gives a fulsome teaching:
vs. 11/12=Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
It can be stated that in this dialogue Nicodemus is speaking as the voice of Judaism while Jesus, when He states, “we speak”; “we know”; “we testify”; “we have seen”; “our testimony” this reveals His intimate union with the Father and it can be added, since St. John is writing in the early years of the Church the ‘we’ is also the voice of Christianity.
The parables Jesus uses to teach are replete with stories which concern earthly things and are used to lead into the things of heaven, such as are found in the Synoptic Gospels but not in St. John, who focuses on the teachings of Jesus in a detail of words. Thus in meditating upon the Holy Gospel according to St. John it is critical to take time with the words because unlike in the synoptics there are not easy ‘stories’ to tell as gateway to the teaching.
vss. 13-15= No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Being a man of faith and scholarship Nicodemus would realize immediately Jesus is revealing that He Himself is the cure for all that sickens humanity. While in the desert, all the Chosen People had to look upon a representation of the very snakes that were sickening them, so the healing promised by God might take place. That healing was only for those physically sickened by a snake bite and had no extension to the inner healing all human beings need.
Perhaps Nicodemus did not fully grasp things, yet maybe listening to Jesus, his heart, like the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, was already burning within him.
Saying He Himself must be lifted up Jesus is beginning to reveal what He further details: vs. 16-17= 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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
As mentioned, in the desert the people were only healed from a snake bite.
Jesus heals the sickness of sin and the poison of death.
If we return to Nicodemus’ opening question how astonished he must have been by the depth and clarity of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps Nicodemus was already rediscovering in his mind and heart everything contained in the Hebrew Scripture about the Messiah.
While intellectually we can understand love and giving as in “….God so loved the world that He gave…” only our hearts are able to open to the fullness of the immensity of the Father’s love for us in giving His only Son for us, a gift which contains within the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus and Jesus’ constant intercession for us at the right hand of the Father.
We have also here the profound teaching on mercy: “…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Divine Mercy is personified in the crucified and risen Jesus and more than two millennia after this conversation with Nicodemus, Pope St. John Paul II would declare the Second Sunday of Holy Easter Mercy Sunday.
Jesus continues teaching v.18= Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Over the centuries since Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, a simple enough code for holiness, as our Jewish Brothers and Sisters became settled in the promised land and groups like the Pharisees, to which Nicodemus belonged, the Sadducees, and some Rabbi’s kept piling on every more burdensome regulation until achieving holiness of life either through daily living or religious practice became nigh impossible.
Christianity has faced, does face, the same temptation and struggle, namely to bury the simplicity and clarity of, for example how to follow the Great Commandment to love one another, under similar burdens, as Christ was constantly criticizing the religious leaders of His day for doing.
Certainly, the valid celebration of sacraments requires rubrics, but post the Council of Trent, particularly when Latin was no longer the common language, insistence on Latin as the ONLY liturgical language was burdensome and frankly dumb. It would take the Vatican Council, called by St. John XXIII, who was always a priest of the people, to open the richness and transcendence of liturgy to all people, whatever their language.
It may well have shocked Nicodemus that Jesus was asserting holiness of life has faith as its foundation and praxis, not following a bunch of rules!
True faith leads to fulfillment of the Gospel, lived without compromise, to communal participation in sacramental/liturgical life.
v.19= And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.
These words of Jesus echo the Prologue: And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. [Jn.1:5]
Much later Jesus would declare: “I am the light of the world…..” [Jn.8:12ff]
We speak these days of ‘dark’ money in politics and of the ‘dark’ web, indeed people of faith understand we live in a culture of darkness and death.
Paradoxically, given the number of major cities and towns across the globe we seem both addicted to dark places and fearful of them at the same time and so intensely illuminate our cities that we refer to such illumination as ‘light pollution!’
v.20= For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.
Even post-baptism we Christians can choose to reject the Light of Christ poured into us. We do this by choosing sin, by rejecting the gift of faith.
We can also choose to live and move, to act and love always within the divine gift of light.
Borrowing from the stories of the Fathers of the Desert, in his book, Circling the Sun, Robert Pelton teaches this, first re-telling a story about two fathers of the desert: One day Father Lot went to Fr. Joseph and told him, “As far as I can, I keep my rule. I eat little, I pray and am silent, I work with my hands and share my bread with the poor. As best I can, I strive to purify my heart. What else should I do?” Then Father Joseph stood up and stretched out his arms, and from his fingers shot tongues of fire. “If you want,” he said, “you can become a living flame.” [op. cit. p.122]
Pelton comments: To become a living flame: that is the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus the Master. That is what He Himself is, the blazing sun who lights the whole world. [ibid.]
v. 21= But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.