The full readings for this Sunday can be found here.
“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.”
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Back in 1975, my parents packed me up and loaded me onto an airplane bound for Lacombe, Louisiana. There, I would attend a minor seminary, which was a kind of a prep school for young men who wanted to become priests. In addition to the regular courses, we would study Latin and theology. And we went to Mass every day.
While I was there, I became close with three young men: Steve Delacroix, who taught me the benefits of being a rogue; Gerard Lascaux, who taught me how to play poker; and Jariet Randall, a young African-American man who taught me a great deal about courage.
Well, every now and then, the four of us would sneak off from the seminary into the Louisiana night and go through the woods into the town of Lacombe. There was an old swimming pool there where the girls from town would go, and we would meet them for what my friend Gerard Lascaux called “general mischief.”
So this one night, we snuck out of the dorm and went walking towards town, and it was way past dark-thirty. And I observed that if the priests caught us sneaking out, we would be in real trouble. And my friend Steve Delacroix said, “Oh no, chère. They won’t be upset, cause we’re doing this for their benefit.” Well, I looked at him and said, “Delacroix, how do you figure we are doing this for their benefit?”
Well, Steve, he looked at me and said, “You see, we’re living such holy lives here at the seminary that if we didn’t sneak out every now and then, we wouldn’t have no sins to confess, and the priests wouldn’t have nothing to forgive.”
Well, it turns out that my friend Delacroix had misjudged the priests’ attitude about our late night adventures, and they weren’t nearly as grateful as we thought they might be.
So, in today’s Gospel, we hear about another fellow who has been sneaking around at night, albeit for reasons somewhat more noble than were mine and my friends’.
We meet this man Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, who Jesus calls “the teacher of Israel.” He comes to Jesus as one of the stewards of the religious traditions of his people. Now the Evangelist John is a very fine poet, and when he says Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, we need to recognize that John’s not just talking about events that took place after sunset. John means that Nicodemus was walking in a spiritual darkness. And he comes to Jesus at night, in secret.
Now Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he had inherited a rich, long tradition and had devoted his life to it. And yet, he was drawn to this man Jesus, drawn to the signs he has seen, drawn to the miracles, and drawn to the clear presence of God in Jesus’ life.
And then, their conversation takes a very strange turn. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above if he wants to see the kingdom. Now this is a moment that transcends Nicodemus’ initial curiosity. This is not just a minor adjustment in Nicodemus’ ideas about God. This is a completely new way of being, which will require Nicodemus to let go of most everything he thinks he understands.
And understandably, Nicodemus is confused. He doesn’t get it; he takes Jesus literally. He wonders how an old man is supposed to be born again, to go back to the womb. And Jesus’ response doesn’t necessarily clear that confusion up. He tells Nicodemus that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. In essence, Jesus tells him, you’ve got to be born all over again; you’ve got to start from the very beginning.
Jesus tells him that Spirit goes where it will; we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t know where it’s going. A life in the spirit of God, a life like that of Jesus, isn’t neat or calculable or predictable. The Spirit is holy and wild and unrestrained. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God will not remain in the box that we try to keep God in.
And Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He is confused. He reveals his amazement when he says, “How can these things be?” There is a certain terror in his confusion. Because like every birth, being born in the spirit will involve a certain amount of pain as well as some chaos. But there is a certain grace in that bewilderment.
God will not stay inside the box of our comprehension. As a friend noted, “God, as I understand Him, is not well understood.” Or, to paraphrase the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, Not only is God stranger than we think, God is stranger than we have the capacity to think.
We all like our mountaintop experiences. We love those moments when we think we can grasp God, or the movement of God in our lives. But those aren’t the moments where growth happens. Spiritual growth arises more often from moments when we say, “I don’t understand this at all” or “What is this happening here?” or “How can these things be?” If we want to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, we need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
We might call these moments of “holy confusion.” In times like these, God draws us closer. God calls us to change. God calls us into something completely new. In such moments, we feel like the rest of our lives don’t make sense anymore. We feel like new people; we feel reborn.
One of my favorite theologians is a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, who prayed that God would give him the gift of wonder. He once said “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As Heschel knew, we are far closer to God when we are asking questions than when we are convinced of our answers.
But we know a few more things about Nicodemus. We know that at the trial of Jesus, he was the only person who stood up for Christ. Nicodemus, who had initially come to Jesus in secret, spoke up for him in public. And we know that when Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus (along with Joseph of Aramethea) who took the body to be buried and anointed it. Somehow, the encounter with this man Jesus changed Nicodemus.
And we want to know more, we want to know what happened to him. But I think that John’s Gospel intentionally leaves that story unfinished. Our story, too, is unfinished. But God wants to make something new of us; God draws us into a holy vortex where God is making all things new again.
For Nicodemus, like many of us, faith had become a beautiful heirloom rather than a living fountain from which we drink and are refreshed. You see, I don’t think we need a little more God in our lives. I think we need to be born from above, into the life of God. Every now and then, if we’re really lucky, God will shake us to our core.
And in this holy season of Lent, it’s my prayer that we all walk through a bit of that night, a bit of holy confusion. As we approach the nightfall of Holy Week, it is my prayer that we find ourselves wondering at the meaning of the Cross and Golgotha, awestruck by the mystery of God.
If we do, we may find that we, too, have been reborn and we are a new creation. Let it be, Lord. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017