We are a Church of hope, celebration, and light
Posted: Thu, 11 Mar 2021 14:05
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB looks at the glimpses of joy we are given on 4th Sunday of Lent: Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday. Image: Jesus and Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Today we meet the interesting character, Nicodemus; he is only mentioned in John's gospel, firstly as the one who visits Jesus 'by night'. He seems to have been a member of the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, and strongly urged his colleagues to LISTEN to what Jesus had to say before they sentenced him. Finally, we meet him at the end of the gospel when he and Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. Jesus was born in a borrowed stable and was buried in a borrowed grave. Nicodemus is like us in so many ways: he is searching for the ultimate truth, but he worries what others may think and he is confused. He wants to do the best, but he is unsure of the way forward, so he seeks out Jesus. I hope that you have someone you can turn to, even at the dead of night, to help you face your problems and concerns. Can you be that true friend for someone?
John's use of imagery is legendary and his picture of light and darkness brings us back to the very first page of the bible; in the primordial chaos, Genesis tells us that God first creates light—the light guides the way forward and offers hope. Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness: he is confused and wants to share in the light of hope. In this secret conversation, Jesus offers a challenge to him, 'you must be born again!' As you would appreciate, Nicodemus finds this very confusing; I have to be honest, I find the plea of some charismatic Christians that I need to be 'born again' equally baffling. I see myself following the logic of Nicodemus: how can I be born again? It is impossible to re-enter my mother's womb? Using such language can also alienate us from those who see themselves as having been 'born again' as it can imply that they feel themselves superior to the rest of us: the gospel can never bring division.
Obviously, Jesus is not speaking literally—he wants to help Nicodemus come to terms with the reality of God's love. Today is an invitation to bask in the light of that love—to recognise the power of that love and to live in that love: 'for God so loved the world that he gave his only son!' In that love, we are given a new chance and this is seen particularly through the ministry, actions and words of Jesus Christ. Through Nicodemus, Jesus is inviting us to be part of this revolution of care; this is what it means to be born again: to open your hearts and become one with the Lord, open your hearts and become one with God. It is a whole new life, as we can be born again, not in the flesh, but born again in the spirit.
I hope that this Lent has opened you up to the joy of the sacrament of reconciliation, that most human of meetings: we share our full and all-too-human existence with the Lord of forgiveness. Nicodemus is like so many of us who are described by Jesus as preferring 'darkness to light'. Today, we are given that promise that God stands with us even in the darkness.
In the deep darkness of this pandemic, we have always seen glimmers of light and hope. As is so often the case, it is those little things that lift us to the light when we experience even the 'wobbliest' of wobbles: the cards, children's art work, an email or Zoom call. It is those simple things that can mean the most. In the life of Jesus, Nicodemus is one of the many 'little' people who made a difference. His role at Calvary speaks volumes about the man; along with the other faithful ones, John places him being silently supportive amid the jeers and mayhem of execution. We are also invited to stand with those in pain—often we do not have the words to say anything, nor can we magically take the suffering away, but we can be present. We can be the listening ear, we can be the holder of hands and the one to offer the hug of friendship—even if they have to be socially distanced in these dark times.
Today is also known as 'Laetare Sunday', this day, in mid-Lent, when we realise the beauty and strength of this encounter with Nicodemus. We are not a Church of misery, darkness and gloom, we ARE a Church of hope, celebration and light; we are called to be standard-bearers for the light. You may see your priest dressed in pink today-technically he may be dressed in rose-coloured vestments, but they are meant to signify celebration. In the gospel, Jesus talks about the need to be reborn and it was on this day, in the early Church, that Christians visited their 'mother church' or the community of their baptism. In medieval times, this day prompted a day of pilgrimage from across a diocese to visit their 'mother church' or their Cathedral. It is a beautiful image, but not one likely to be repeated in these days, as today,'Mothering Sunday' is less about a religious pilgrimage, but more about showing our love and respect for our mums. No matter how old we are, our connection with our mother is a unique and deep bond that can never be repeated. Today we rightly honour our mothers and give thanks for all they do for us; they are there for us and are supportive of what we do. We also need to remember those families that do not experience this joy and light that mothers are called to bring. Please treat your mum today; show her how much you appreciate what she does for you. Today is the day to break your Lenten fast and not feel guilty: enjoy the food, the drink and the light that Jesus shares with us through Nicodemus.
The 'word became flesh and lived among us'; the gift of incarnation is traditionally placed in the dead of night. At Calvary Hill we are told that 'darkness covered the whole land' when Jesus dies. Today we celebrate light bursting through the darkness as the Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan reminds us in 'The Night':
Through that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o'er thy glorious noon
That men might look and live as glow-worms shine,
And face the moon:
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
When thou didst rise,
And what can never more be done,
Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!
O who will tell me, where
He found thee at that dead and silent hour!
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
So rare a flower,
Within whose sacred leaves did lie
The fullness of the Deity.
'The Night', Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695)
Watch and listen: 'God So Loved'