This Sunday’s Gospel is an interesting juxtaposition of a story and an allocution. It opens with Christ addressing Nicodemus, and develops into one of the most quoted passages on how “God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son,” and on the image of light and darkness.
It is this image of light and darkness vis-à-vis the story of Nicodemus that I invite you to reflect on.
The story of Nicodemus is familiar. He first approaches Christ in the darkness of night. A Pharisee, he wanted to hide under cover of darkness his curiosity to know this Christ.
After this first encounter, he becomes a secret follower of Christ.
He comes out of the dark when he, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes and cares for the dead body of Christ after the crucifixion.
This is a rather bold move, and a sharp contrast to the “old” Nicodemus. When most of the followers of Christ “hide” during his Passion and Cross, Nicodemus is now one of the first to come out in the open as a follower, a friend of Christ—from darkness to light.
The allocution, as most commentaries point out, places side by side God’s great and unconditional love and judgment. It seems like an oxymoronic experience.
Yet here we actually witness one of the core values and graces of our Christian faith, the primacy of God’s love that is so great that he “humbles” himself in the face of human freedom. Thus, we have the primacy of God’s love and the primacy of human freedom.
We need to understand how God’s great and unconditional love and judgment can stand side by side. It is the human freedom that allows us to exercise free choice. It is the choices we make that render the judgment.
William Barclay gives an interesting example. If you bring a friend to listen to one of the best symphony orchestras or to view a great artwork and he/she finds it boring or unappealing, the reaction or response is not a judgment on the orchestra or the artwork, but on the person responding. The judgment is this—in the face of greatness, does the person appreciate and embrace it?
This is probably one of the important reminders of Lent. Every Lent we prepare to come face-to-face with the greatness of God’s love in the Paschal Mystery, the Cross and the Resurrection. As St. Paul writes, “…the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20) And as we hear in the Baptism and Transfiguration, “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him,” we witness on the Cross and in the Resurrection the once-and-for-all expression of this statement of God.
The Cross and the Resurrection, taken as one Paschal Mystery, is the greatest love that invites us to make a choice: to enter the core of our relationship with Christ or not. This is the judgment, our choice to stay in the periphery of this relationship or enter its core, which is the Cross and the Resurrection.
The opening lines of today’s Gospel dramatically present this, where Christ tells Nicodemus his two “liftings”—on the Cross and in the Resurrection—referring to a story the Jews are familiar with: Moses lifting up the serpent on a standard in the desert.
It is the lifting on the Cross and in the Resurrection that is the definitive expression of God’s love, and the sole “entry” into eternal life by our believing in this mystery, embracing it and entering the core of our relationship with Christ.
Nicodemus’ story mirrors our story. He first encounters Christ in the dark of night. In that encounter he believes and he follows Christ. But he remains a secret follower of Christ. He comes out into the light only at the foot of the Cross.
Thirst for spirituality
This is our story. Many of us search and do encounter Christ in our life. We come to a point when we thirst for spirituality and we journey to become aware, but we always fall short of the acceptance that brings us to a choice. Awareness is not an end in itself but a means to another stage of awareness, acceptance.
Acceptance, in itself, is again a means to an end, which is the choice to love and to follow Christ. Awareness is in seeing Christ more clearly, and acceptance is to accept his love, that “he loved me and gave himself up for me.”
It is only when we choose to love Christ, in return, more dearly—expressed in following him more nearly—that we come out of darkness into the light. Yet even this choice has to be done ever more nearly, in following Christ all the way to the Cross and the Resurrection.
Recently, I was made to think by a series of posts on Instagram. It was talking about making something out of one’s self. There was one person who I thought clearly understood what greatness meant in God’s plan and light. Reflecting on the quote, “God can raise someone from nothing to something,” she wrote, “What ‘something’ is … is our life’s mission to uncover.”
Yes, to be something from nothing is living out God’s mission for us. As we have discussed time and again, we can do many good and great things in the eyes of the world, which may seem like “something,” but we may still be, like Nicodemus, in the dark.
The only light is doing God’s will for us; living a life of mission, God’s mission, because all mission is participating in the mission of Christ, which is living out of the pattern of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
As I read this Sunday’s Gospel, one of the memories that came back was the conversation I had with my spiritual director 14 or 15 years ago. “Now you have to make a choice, to enter the core of your relationship with Christ or to stay in the periphery,” he told me.
I kept quiet and I felt something (or someone) warm flow from my head down through my entire body. I knew I had to choose to enter the mystery of the Cross and the Resurrection in my own life.
I knew I had to choose a life of mission where “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2: 20)