Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nicodemus and Lent

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today in our Gospel reading we have the famous scene where Nicodemus visits Jesus by night. Now most of our readings during Lent tend to be about prayer, fasting, and self-denial, reminders of the need to do penance, to take up our cross, and follow Christ. Which might make one wonder how the story of Nicodemus fits in. And the answer, I think, is that the most obvious way of taking up one's cross is to follow Christ at whatever the cost. And from what we know about Nicodemus, he certainly did that.

So what do we know? Well, everything we know of him is from Scripture, and from that we learn that he was a Pharisee, which means he was intelligent and highly educated; and he was a leader of the Jews, which means that he was a man of power and influence, possibly even of some wealth. He appears three times in St John's Gospel. We meet him first in chapter three, our Gospel reading today. He has seen the signs that Jesus has performed and he knows from them that Jesus has been sent by God. Perhaps he even suspects that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Certainly, he addresses him respectfully, calling him Rabbi. But he has come by night; he is a cautious man; he wants to talk to Jesus, but he's not ready to do so publicly. He's worried, no doubt, about what others will think about his going to talk with this Galilean.

This night time conversation about needing to be born again of water and the spirit seems to make a powerful impression on him though. This is not surprising - as we read in the letter of St James: draw near to God and he will draw near to you. And Nicodemus in his encounter with the Word made flesh has drawn very near to God indeed. The next time we come across him is in Chapter 7 and he is more openly on Jesus' side, though discreetly so. The other Pharisees are not happy about what the people are saying about Jesus, the speculation that he might be a prophet or even the Messiah. They send the temple police to arrest him, who of course fail to do so. 

Alone of all these rich and powerful men, Nicodemus speaks out against what they are doing. He says that the law does not allow a man to be judged without a hearing. We know that Nicodemus has already given Jesus such a hearing; that he has already admitted to him that he knows him to have been sent from God. It seems as if Nicodemus is trying to get his brother Pharisees to listen to Jesus for themselves and be convinced as he was. The other Pharisees rubbish his suggestion; and it is worth noting that Nicodemus' courage only takes him so far. He doesn't stand up to the others. He doesn't declare that he has been convinced by the claims of Jesus, that he has seen the signs and knows him to have been sent by God. He is not yet willing to go all the way with this, to risk his position of power and privilege.

But Nicodemus' journey of faith was far from over. Because when we encounter him again for the third and final time in chapter 19, gone is the caution that had him visiting by night, and gone is the discretion that kept him from declaring openly to his brother Pharisees who it was that he thought Jesus was. When almost everyone else has fled, disciples, apostles, even Peter who had said he would die with him, it is Nicodemus who stands at the foot of the cross with the few who remain: St Joseph of Arimathea; the beloved disciple St John the Evangelist; and the Mother of Christ herself, the Blessed Virgin Mary. He no longer cares what his brother Pharisees think. He and Joseph tenderly take our Lord's body from the cross, publicly and unashamed, and gently place him in his mother's arms. Then they take him and reverently lay him in a tomb carved from the rock, wrapped in linen, layered in spices – a royal burial.

Did St Nicodemus pay a price for what he did? Scripture doesn't tell us; but it does tell us how Saul, a younger Pharisee of far less relative importance, was treated. So it is unimaginable that at the very least Nicodemus did not lose his position of power and influence in Jewish society. And I do not call him St Nicodemus accidentally, for we must remember that the Church, both East and West, has from ancient days called him a saint, even naming churches in his honour. How could we not consider a saint one who risked everything to stand at the foot of the cross, one who treated with awe and reverence the body of our Lord which was broken for all mankind? Such a one has nothing to fear when that day spoken of in the Book of Revelation takes place, when the books of men's deeds are opened and all are judged according to their works.


And so I think that it is very appropriate to think of St Nicodemus during this season of Lent, a time when all of us are called to examine our lives and see how much more we need to do in order to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. I pray that his example will inspire all here to be true followers of Christ, unafraid to sacrifice everything, unashamed to stand at the foot of the cross of our Lord and throw ourselves upon his divine mercy, so that on that great and terrible day when the books of our lives are opened and read before the Heavenly Throne, we will have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to fear. Amen

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