nicodemus and the light
(cyprian on Jn 3:16-21)
This passage is a continuation of a longer passage from chapter 3 of the Gospel of John, which in the lectionary we begin the day before and continue the day after. But we have to see it in the context of the rest of this narrative and discourse. I want to try to catch the significance of what I think is the central line in this passage; Jesus says, ‘the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…’ That seems to pick up on the Prologue of John’s Gospel (vs. 4): The light shines in the darkness, and that darkness did not overcome it. But the image plays out in other places in the Gospel of John, too. When Jesus is on his way to raise Lazarus from the dead he tells his disciples, who are warning him against going to Bethany because the Jews had tried to stone him last time he was there, and he gives them kind of a koan, a non-sequitur answer: ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ Isn’t that interesting? ‘Because the light is not in them.’ Remember also that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night (3:2), which we heard about yesterday. The fact that he came to Jesus by night must be important because later, when this same Nicodemus comes to help in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial, John reintroduces him in the same way, as Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night (19:39). When he first came, he was in the dark; when he takes the risk to come to bury Jesus, he is a believer, no longer in the night.
So the night plays an important symbolic role in the gospels and especially in the Gospel of John. It seems to symbolize both ignorance in general and specifically the ignorance of not believing in Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, Jesus as the speaker of Truth. So it begs the question, why do people not believe in Jesus? But there is a bigger question too, a more general one, that applies to more than just belief or non-belief in Jesus: why do we hate the light? Why do we prefer ignorance? I think the two can be tied together.
Let’s keep in mind, especially as shown in Mark’s Gospel, that even Jesus’ closest disciples don’t get it, don’t come fully into the light. The other poignant place of course that the night is mentioned is at the Last Supper when Jesus sends Judas off to perform his nefarious deed. After receiving the piece of bread that Jesus gives him (as a sign to the beloved disciple that he is the one to betray him), he immediately went out, John tells us. And it was night. Those are some of the most chilling words in scripture. After spending three years in intimate proximity, Judas was still in the night of ignorance. Not to mention the other apostles abandoning Jesus during his execution, or how many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him after the great Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, or how his contemporaries took offense at him.[i] So perhaps we can let people off the hook in our own times.
At the same time, though people may not understand or believe the same way we do about all the ramifications of the Christ event, actually I am not sure that people take so much offense at Jesus in our times, as they do of Christians and Christianity as they experience it. A young man from China who was here two weeks ago, not a Christian, said he was listening to the gospels on ear buds as he was riding his bicycle down the coast of California and had to stop riding, get off his bike and weep at how beautiful it was. I am afraid that often we hide the beautiful face of Jesus; and often Christianity is known more by its caricatures than by its reality.
On the other hand, we all tend to prefer darkness over the light in general, at least at times, meaning, we prefer the innocence of ignorance, we prefer the ease of our misery over the hard work of freedom and joy. The problem is, the door to awareness once opened can never be shut and, as AA says, “We may not cure your drinking, but we’ll ruin it!” the same thing applies to any kind of knowledge, especially spiritual truth. It may not cure us of our darkness, but it will ruin the comfort we take in it. It challenges us, shakes us out of our mediocrity, calls us to our greater self.
Why we are hearing about this now, so early in the Easter season, is because the oil of chrismation is still glistening on the foreheads of the newly baptized. In the early days of Christianity baptism was called photismos, which usually translated as illumination or enlightenment, as in the writings of Justin Martyr, one century after Paul: “as those who learn these things are illuminated in the mind. And one who is illuminated is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ…”[ii] The baptismal experience, the whole process of conversion and catechesis, was thought of as a kind of enlightenment, a whole new way of thinking. Jesus says of himself, ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world’ but he also says ‘You are the light of the world.’[iii] The newly baptized near to hear this; we need to hear this: The light is in us now! We are the light of the world!
Now I go back to the rest of the reading: just as the Son came into the world not to judge, so we follow the example of Jesus, the compassionate high priest who can sympathize with those who are ignorant or uncertain,[iv] those who are still in the darkness. So the Holy Father urges us in his prayer for the Year of Mercy with the same words: “You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error.” Instead of judging them for that, “Let everyone who approaches them––that is, let everyone who approaches us!––feel sought after, loved and forgiven…” just as God so loved the world! That would show the world the beautiful face of Christ. It may be our fault that they are in ignorance because we often hide the beautiful face of Jesus behind caricatures of Christianity. If they really knew, if we really showed them Jesus, if we were really photismos–filled with the light of illumination, would not they be attracted?
Jesus says of himself, ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world’ but he also says ‘You are the light of the world.’[v] The newly baptized near to hear this; we need to hear this: The light is in us now! We are the light of the world!
[i] Mt 13:57; Mk 6:3.
[ii] First Apol. 61
[iii] Jn 8:12, 9:5
[iv] Heb 5:1, 8
[v] Jn 8:12, 9:5