When I was in my 20’s and a bit of a night owl, I’d be driving home at 1am and I would get pulled over all the time; I asked my brother-in-law, a policeman at the time, what that was all about, and he told me a statistic, perhaps extra-canonical, that after 11:47pm, over half the drivers on the road were over the legal limit, and so if you were like me and driving an old baby-blue Cadillac at 1 in the morning, you had a good chance of being stopped. Then there’s an old adage passed amongst police and first responders that “Nothing good happens at 3 in the morning.” Nighttime has always puzzled mankind, the darkness full of dangers both real and perceived. John of the Cross, after all, didn’t write about the long bright daytime of the soul. And yet, our Gospel story today is set in a dark Jerusalem night.
“John doesn’t tell us why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. The most popular explanation is that he was afraid to be seen with Jesus, or even seeking him out. He could have been afraid of being associated with a controversial figure who challenged the religious elite, of which he was a member, and did not accept their authority, intellectual or otherwise. He could have been ashamed, as a Teacher of Israel, to be seen consulting with an itinerant preacher with none of his credentials.
“But on the following two occasions when John mentions Nicodemus, he offers his support of Jesus in very public ways. The second time he appears, he offers legal support by insisting to his colleagues that Jesus was entitled to a trial. The third and final time, he offers physical support, in broad daylight, helping to carry Jesus’s body from the cross to the tomb, and anointing him with an astonishing quantity of myrrh.
“So perhaps fear of being seen is an inadequate explanation of the timing of Nicodemus’s journey. He may have suffered from insomnia. He may have been kept awake by anxiety about leading the next day’s religious services. (It happens.) Or he may have been working late. Jewish scholars were known to study scripture literally day and night. Perhaps he had hit upon a passage that hit a little too close to home with an implication that Jesus was truly the long-awaited Messiah.
“Incidentally, no one ever seems to ask what Jesus was doing up at this hour. If Nicodemus had to wake him, John doesn’t mention it, and other passages suggest that someone outside a house would have made quite a commotion trying to wake a sleeping inhabitant. Insomnia seems unlikely. Jesus could have been studying scripture too, or praying, or waiting with foreknowledge of Nicodemus’s arrival. Or John could be making a subtle reference to Jesus’s divinity by portraying him as a metaphorical light in the literal darkness.
“The dialogue is classic and beautiful, but also frustrating, because Nicodemus cannot free himself from literalism. He is unable or unwilling to key into Jesus’s spiritual revelations, and his failure to understand or at least accept makes his responses absurdly obtuse to our ears. Appropriately for the situation, Jesus speaks of spiritual rebirth. The Greek word that our translation renders as “born from above” can also be translated “born again,” or my preference, “born anew.” The last translation fits better with Nicodemus’s response and the rest of the dialogue.
“Maybe I was being too hard on Nicodemus. Jesus asks a great deal of him. He asks nothing less than that he become a different person. That is the inevitable result of being born anew. If you went to anyone for counsel and they told you you needed to become a completely different person, while criticizing your intelligence and competence, how would you react? Probably not as well as Nicodemus.”1
That kind of teaching, that command, might drive us to a dark night of the soul. At the very least, being told that we must be born again, made new, will make us take stock of who we are now, which is not always fun. Perhaps we, like Nicodemus, will attempt to meet Jesus first at night, when some of our flaws are hidden by the darkness. Perhaps it’s only after meeting Him there that we, like Nicodemus, can follow Him in the light.
As the community of the baptized, of those born again in baptism, we have met Jesus, we have gone down into the dark waters with Him, and been raised to new life, a life lived in the light of Christ. That doesn’t mean there won’t be times of darkness, times of struggle, times when it feels that no hope can be found; but if Nicodemus could tell us anything today, it’s that Jesus can be found even at night.
1Fr. Bret Hays, from a sermon given on the Second Sunday of Lent, 2014