Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Though cautiously doing so by night, still, Nicodemus feels compelled to come to Jesus. This elder, a respected leader among the religious authorities, comes to see the mysterious rabbi from Galilee. However, mere curiosity does not motivate Nicodemus’ visit. He seems, rather, to be one of the “many [who] believed in [Jesus’s] name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23) during that first Jerusalem Passover festival at which Jesus appears in John’s gospel.
“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.”(John 3:2) Nicodemus, I would say, exhibits a certain amount of courage and imagination. Courage in approaching Jesus in the wake of his disruptive action in the temple; imagination in that though there is much that Nicodemus already knows of God, he comes to Jesus aware that there is likely still much that he does not know.
Jesus acknowledges Nicodemus’ deferential greeting of awe by immediately confounding him with a disorienting—and punning—theological statement: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen,” (John 3:3) this last being a single Greek word carrying two meanings, both anew and from above.[i] Nicodemus, apparently assuming the less poetic meaning “born anew”(as in “again”), attempts a polite response, pointing out the unlikeliness of the biological process necessary for what he supposes Jesus is suggesting. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’(John 3:4)
Yet, Jesus responds with what seems intended as a yet more cryptic statement: “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.”(John 3:5-6) Hearing the gospel for the first time members of the Johannine community were perhaps amused at Nicodemus’s expense: ‘Well, of course*, Jesus is speaking of Christian baptism, the rite which validates our conversion to belief.’
However, I think the well-schooled Nicodemus probably does understand that Jesus is pointing to a more profound reality. With many years of study and prayer behind him in his position as a leader and teacher, Nicodemus realizes that Jesus is saying that there is much more to the fullness of human relationship with God than even sacramental rites can signify. “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.”(John 3:7-8)
Again, Jesus is using a Greek word of double meaning: the word pneuma signifies both “wind” as in nature and “spirit” as in a heavenly or divine agent.[ii] Nicodemus realizes that, though he has claimed to have knowledge of God, now encountering Jesus, the human embodiment of God, he is himself reduced to questioning as one who still has much to learn of God’s love. “How can these things be?”(John 3:9) Like a vulnerable and helpless infant in the darkness of the womb, Nicodemusseeks the birthing labor of the Son of Man who, lifted up on the cross, desires to draw the whole world into the light of eternal life.
In her Revelations of Divine Love, the fourteenth century English anchoress, Julian of Norwich, writes in mystic imagery of the ongoing nature of our birth “from above” in Christ:
“The human mother will suckle her child with her own milk, but our beloved Mother, Jesus, feeds us with himself, and with most tender courtesy, does it by means of the Blessed Sacrament, the precious food of all true life…. The human mother may put her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus simply leads us into his blessed breast through his open side, and there gives us a glimpse of the Godhead and heavenly joy, the inner certainty of eternal bliss.”[iii]
Since Ash Wednesday, those newly drawn to Christian life have been receiving final instruction in preparation for Holy Baptism. At Easter, these catechumens will make a public profession of faith. Then, sacramentally incorporated into the dying and rising of Christ, through water and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they will participate in offering and receiving the Eucharist for the first time.
In solidarity with these, soon to be “born from above”, sisters and brothers, we have all pledged to re-commit to lives of ongoing conversion, through repentance, prayer and loving service. As we keep the Church’s Lenten retreat, we ask help and healing of God for lives of continuing formation and transformation in Christ. The Society’s Rule of Life teaches that, “The grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him.” Our Lenten observance, whether we be monks or not, prepares us also to publically renew the Baptismal Covenant.
We would do well also to reflect and prayerfully meditate on the actual vows which we solemnly professed (or which were made for us) when we ourselves were baptized. The Baptismal Vows appear in The Book of Common Prayer’s service of Holy Baptism in the form of three renunciations of evil and three adhesions to God’s love in Christ:
Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Question Do you put your whole trust in [Jesus’] grace and love?
Question Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus] as your Lord? [iv]
As you ask God’s help for renewal in the grace of these vows, pray also for new hearts of compassion and love in Christ. Remember that many who are baptized in the coming Easter season will join Christ’s Mystical Body at the cost of their lives, as they have known them. As our ancestors Abraham and Sarah did, they may need to leave behind everything familiar in order to join us in our common journey into the life of God’s coming kingdom. Relationships, professions, possessions or the guarantee of security may need to be relinquished as the newly baptized seek true freedom in the company of those God whom so deeply desires to draw to himself.
Meditation on today’s scripture readings drew me to reflect on the reality of baptismal grace as I have experienced it in following the call to vowed monastic life in community. The abiding gift of the Spirit has led me to gratitude and joy, while marveling at a vocation so compelling and inviting, yet terrifying; so seemingly simple, yet complex and uncertain; as the one thing that I must do, yet knowing that I am not capable of persevering without God’s help. You may also find it graceful and healing to remember the trials and triumphs of Christ that you have known in your own vowed vocation.
For all catechumens and for ourselves in our Lenten pilgrimage, let us pray:
O God, the creator and savior of all flesh, look with mercy on your children whom you call to yourself in love. Cleanse their hearts and guard them as they prepare to receive your Sacraments that, led by your Holy Spirit, they may be united with your Son, and enter into the inheritance of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[v]
[i] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Doubleday, 1966, p. 130
[ii] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Doubleday, 1966, p. 131
[iii] Julian of Norwich, Showings, Paulist, 1978, p. 298
[iv]The Book of Common Prayer,1979, pp.302-303
[v]The Book of Occasional Services, 1994, p. 119