Nicodemus’ search for the “Soul of Theology”
Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 18, 2012
The readings for this Sunday are: 2 Chronicles 36:14-17a, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Extraordinary Form: Galatians 4:22-31; John 6:1-15
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) features a nocturnal conversation between two important religious teachers: on the one hand a notable “teacher of Israel” named Nicodemus, and on the other, Jesus whom this Nicodemus calls a “teacher from God.”
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. His prominent role and position in the national cabinet called the Sanhedrin made him the custodian of a great tradition. He was expected by many to be a national expert on God!
It is important to provide some background for the Gospel passage for this Sunday. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most significant dialogues of the New Testament and his coming to Jesus secretly at night suggests the darkness of unbelief. The whole visit and conversation are shrouded in ambiguity and the Johannine penchant for strong contrasts such as darkness and light can be seen in this highly symbolic story. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the need to experience the presence of God and offer oneself to him.
Knowing God is much more than a gathering of theological information and data about him. In speaking about being born again from above, Jesus does not mean that one must reenter the mother’s womb for a second time; but Jesus refers to a rebirth, which the Spirit of God makes possible.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and all who will hear this story in future generations, that the Son of Man must be lifted up on a pole so that people may gaze upon him and find healing and peace. During Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the people were afflicted by a plague of serpents. Moses raised up a serpent on a stake, and all who gazed upon it were restored to health. Both the bronze serpent and Jesus crucified symbolize human sinfulness. When Jesus is “raised up,” it is not only his suffering on the cross that is intimated. The Greek word used for “raised up” has a double meaning: both a physical lifting up from the ground, as in the crucifixion, and the spiritual lifting up which is an exultation.
What lesson does Nicodemus teach us today? He alerts us to what happens when we buy into a system and try to “master” theology, scripture, tradition, rules and regulations. He teaches us that courses in religion and theology are no substitute for faith and conviction. For Nicodemus, God is much more than information and data – God is first and foremost a friend, a lover, a Lord and a Saviour, who patiently waits for us by day, and even by night. Rather than approaching Scripture as something to master, we must allow the Word of God to master us.
We know nothing more about Nicodemus, except that months afterward, he is able to postpone the inevitable clash between Jesus and the Sanhedrin. Later on, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in retrieving the broken body of the dead Jesus.
Nicodemus and the Synod
I cannot help but read the story of Nicodemus in light of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I had the privilege of serving as the Vatican’s English language media attaché for the Synod of Bishops in October 2008 in Rome. The experience was a rich retreat steeped in Scripture and the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
At the synod, the Holy Father and the bishops of the world addressed the present impasse in Scriptural studies, often caused by the atomization and dissection of the Scriptures and a lack of integration of biblical studies with faith, the liturgy and lived spirituality. If Biblical texts are read and taught only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We run the risk of selectivist and relativist interpretations of God’s Word.
Over the past 18 years of lecturing in Scripture at the Graduate School of Theology of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, numerous students confided in me that their Scripture courses were “without a soul,” divorced from the reality of the Church and unrelated to her liturgical life. Their simple yet revealing comments pointed toward one of the significant themes evoked during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.
On October 14, 2008, Benedict XVI shared some profound reflections on this very topic. In his brief, crystal-clear address to the whole assembly at the Vatican, the Pope touched upon one of the important themes that emerged in spades during this synod. When Catholic biblical exegesis is divorced from the living, breathing community of faith in the Church, exegesis is reduced to historiography and nothing more. The hermeneutic of faith disappears. We reduce everything to human sources and can simply explain everything away. Ultimately, we deny the One about whom the Scriptures speak, the One whose living presence lies underneath the words.
Referring to Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Pope reaffirmed unequivocally the importance of the historical-critical method that finds its roots in John 1:14, the Word becoming flesh. Nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded as long as the purpose of the different approaches and their limits are kept clear. All the while the Pope was speaking, the New Testament figure of Nicodemus was on my mind, as well as numerous other personalities who were led by Jesus beyond theories, systems, structures into the encounter with the living Lord who is the Word among us. Nicodemus certainly had an endless amount of knowledge and learning, and he developed a great system of religion in which God is categorized and analyzed. Jesus does not say that this is evil or even undesirable. He simply says that it is not enough.
Ever since my years of study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, I have carried this little prayer of St. Bonaventure in my pocket. The words are from his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum inviting Christians to recognize the inadequacy of
reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God.
Those words serve as a measure and guide for each of us, as we study theology and the Word of God, and allow the Word to master us. May our knowledge, learning, science and intelligence humbly lead us into an encounter, by day and by night, with Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal of our journey.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB