Have you ever noticed that there are not many Christians named Nicodemus? While names like “Peter” and “Mary” and “John” have remained popular through the centuries, I have yet to meet a single Nicodemus.
I wonder if it is because Nicodemus at first glance does not present as a particularly likable Gospel figure. First, he is a Pharisee—clearly designated as one in the “bad guy” camp of those who are constantly criticizing, and being criticized by, Jesus. Second, he comes “at night” indicating a lack of courage to follow Jesus openly. Third, while he begins by praising Jesus, he quickly moves into an argument:
Nicodemus: We know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with Him.
Jesus: Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born a new, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?
Jesus: Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus: How can this be?
Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do you not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.
John does not tell of Nicodemus’ reaction, but instead moves onto the most quoted line of all of Scripture, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” John 3:16
It is clear that the darkness of night refers not just to the time of day, but the inability of Nicodemus to see and to understand Jesus at this time.
Indeed, much of what Christ says is mysterious or puzzling—not only to those living at the time but to us today. Can I really fault Nicodemus for arguing with God, when I so often do the same? When there is so much I do not understand, even for years? The truth is that the Christian life is not something we receive or accomplish on a one-time basis, but it is something organic, a relationship in which we grown in knowledge and understanding as well as in love.
When we are born “naturally” we receive the gift of life, but that life will change and mature as we continue through it. So too when we are born of “water and Spirit” in baptism. The gifts of baptism mature in us as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, growing in knowledge and wisdom and love.
Nicodemus does not see or understand everything at that time. But the Unseen Spirit must have been working in Him, for when the time came for Jesus to be “lifted up” Nicodemus was there. It was he who, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helped in the burial of Jesus.
“Nicodemus also, who had first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices as is the burial custom of the Jews.” John 19:39-40
Lest we merely come around to thinking of Nicodemus as a nice guy, we must realize the significance of the amount of spice he brings—“about a hundred pounds weight.” Pope Benedict XVI noted that this was not a small amount, but one befitting “a royal burial.”
Let us ask Nicodemus to intercede for us, that we might receive the grace to continue to dialog with Jesus, to follow even when we don’t understand, and to recognize Him as our King.