Stories Seldom Heard
Fourth Gospel 2:28 - 3: 1- 21
to Stories Seldom Heard. St. Catherine of Siena is a
Doctor of the Church, a theologian and a Dominican. While I
was reading some of her writings the following line caught my
attention. “Behave like a person in love!” As I read on,
I wondered what would happen if I, or we, lived each day “as a
person in love.” Would it change our attitudes and/or actions?
Would we make different life choices? As we read the story of
Nicodemus, we could ask the same question of him. Is he an
observer or does he live as a person who is in love? What
guides his actions?
of Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel where we meet him
three times. His first interaction with Jesus is at
night in Jerusalem during Passover (Jn. 2:23). Nicodemus and
Jesus have a long conversation about being “born from above.”
Then Nicodemus disappears. “On the last day and greatest day
of the festival,” Nicodemus appears a second time. The Jewish
authorities are questioning the police as to why they haven’t
arrested Jesus. In the midst of their heated discussion,
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, speaks on Jesus’ behalf (Jn. 7:50).
Again he fades into the background. The final time we meet
Nicodemus is at the end of the gospel. “After this, Joseph of
Arimathaea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because
he was afraid of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him remove the body
of Jesus…Nicodemus came as well…” (Jn.19:38-39).
to know where Nicodemus stands. There’s always an air of
mystery that surrounds him. He comes at night and moves in the
shadow of the stories. Using John’s imagery, he never comes
into full light. He never publicly confesses his faith in
Jesus. Yet, we cannot deny his interest and persistency.
Maybe that is why many of us find it easy to relate to Nicodemus.
He is a seeker, but he finds it hard to fully and publicly commit
himself as a disciple of Jesus. Something holds him back.
time Nicodemus meets Jesus, Jesus is alone. Jesus is probably
walking home through the narrow streets of the old city after a long
day of preaching. All of a sudden a man whom Jesus doesn’t
know emerges out of a shadowy doorway or dark alley. Even
though Jesus doesn’t know his name, Jesus recognizes him as a
Pharisee: a lay religious leader dressed in long robes with tassels.
The gospel doesn’t tell us, but we can presume that this meeting
wasn’t by chance. So why would Nicodemus choose to meet Jesus
at night? It certainly would have been more convenient to find
Jesus preaching in the marketplace or teaching in the synagogue
during the day than to track him down after dark.
Nicodemus’ circuitous actions can be explained by the fact that he
was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was in agreement with
some of the beliefs and religious practices that Jesus taught.
Pharisees worshipped in the temple. They prayed the same
prayers – the psalms. They too, like Jesus, taught and
believed in the resurrection of the dead. But they also
disagreed with Jesus on some major religious issues. In
scripture the title Pharisee is a code word for those who leaned
heavily on external observances of the law. They studied
the law and scrupulously interpreted it. They believed that it
was through the law that a person was justified. In other
words, they taught that by assiduously following the law a person
was made holy. And there’s the rub!
one hand, Nicodemus could respectfully call Jesus “Rabbi, teacher.”
Nicodemus recognized the power that Jesus had to heal and cure
people. On the other hand, Nicodemus was scandalized by Jesus’
practices and teachings. Jesus healed on the Sabbath which was
against the law. He ate with gentiles and sinners and this,
too, was forbidden by the law. These issues alone would have stirred
up confusion and resistance within Nicodemus or any conscientious
Pharisee, but there was more!
often spoke about the kingdom or reign of God. These
parables, religious riddles about God, were confusing. Could
God really be as forgiving and generous as a father who forgives his
prodigal son even before the son asks for forgiveness? Could
God really be as impractical, according to human thinking, as a
shepherd who leaves ninety- nine sheep unattended to go after the
one lost sheep? In Nicodemus’ first conversation with Jesus,
Jesus talks about being born from above. This birth requires a
willingness to live with a new sensitivity to the movements of the
Spirit within this world and within ourselves. “To be born
from above” means we see all of life with new eyes. It means
we are acutely aware of God nudging us in creative ways so that
God’s power can become more visible through our actions in this
world now not just in some future time.
in this new life-giving Spirit is a big leap of faith. Even
though the Spirit is special, this Spirit is not rare. It
doesn’t just come at Baptism, Confirmation or on Pentecost.
This Spirit is the One who hovered over creation and dwells in each
of us now. If we pay attention it will continually transform
describes this Spirit as a free gift who comes as a strong driving
wind. At other times, the Spirit is described as a whisper.
But no matter how we experience this Spirit, when received, it
always breathes new life in us. When we listen to the nudgings
of this Spirit in prayer it can be life-altering. Its breath
gives us new energy to face our daily routines and struggles.
When we feel stuck in patterns that are destructive, this Spirit can
help us break through our hard and fast habits. If we feel
held back by negative images of ourselves or experiences that have
been harmful to us, this Spirit can bring healing so we can move
forward with a new wisdom. If we feel dulled by the burdens of
our everyday lives, this Spirit can renew our desire to fulfill the
commitments we have made. If we feel tentative about our faith and
our religious practices have become merely external exercises, this
Spirit can deepen our relationship with God.
Spirit according to Jesus is not an idle visitor or silent observer,
but the initiator of new life. A man told me recently, that
when he was growing up he thought religion was just a list of rules.
But now that he is an adult he has come to realize that faith and
religion are about relationships: our relationships with God and one
another. “Over the years I have come to know that it is God
who saves, not the law.”
In a way
Nicodemus can be a foil for us. As he asks his questions, he
gives us space to reconsider our questions. We, too,
have unanswered questions about God, our lives and families and the
world. The story of Nicodemus reflects the journey of faith
that many of us have experienced. But unlike Nicodemus we are
not people who fade back into the darkness of the night. Even though
faith has been slowly unfolding, we realize that it is built on a
relationship. Like any relationship it takes time and
attention: daily prayer that includes more than just our words.
Prayer is a time to listen and pay attention to what we hear in the
silence. It is a time to listen to the noise of the world and
evaluate what is true. Regular “quiet times” give us
space to hear the Spirit’s affirmations. Prayer will help us
fall in love with the One who has loved us before we were born.
what would happen if we lived as persons in love with Love?
Pedro Arrupe, SJ, a former Superior of the Society of Jesus, said it
changes everything. “Nothing is more practical than finding God,
that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What
you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect
everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the
mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your
weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and
what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have
helped in editing this article.
"Stories Seldom Heard" is a monthly article written by Sister
Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San
Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian
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