by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. Jesus came to help, to put the world right again.” John 3, 14-16, 19-23
Today’s gospel-reading contains a generous sample of the opposing contrasts that John uses throughout his Gospel. – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, doubt and belief. Had our reading included the first part of chapter 3 of John, we might have ended up as confused as poor Nicodemus, who simply could not grasp what Jesus was talking about. He even went as far as asking Jesus to explain himself: “What do you mean? How can a grown man be born again? What do you mean by this ‘born-from-above’ talk?” (John 3, 4) Jesus and Nicodemus are on different wave-lengths. It’s important, however, to note that John introduced his audience to Nicodemus as “a leading Jew who had come to Jesus by night” – under the cover of darkness so as not to be seen by his colleagues, and out of the darkness of ignorance.
In digging into this gospel-reading, we have to bear with the symbolism that John uses. For many people, darkness is or has been something to fear – the darkness of the unknown, the darkness of ignorance and secrecy (illustrated by remarks like “The politicians have kept us in the dark!”), the darkness which hides real or imaginary dangers. We can all probably recall childhood memories of being afraid of the dark. There was a time, for instance, when there was no such thing as indoor toilets and, afraid of the bogeyman or some other beast lying in wait to grab us, we would dash to the outhouse and lock ourselves in.
The American poet, Kenneth Patchen wrote a poem about the terrors of the dark called All the Roary Night in which he writes: “All around us, the footprints of the beast…of something above, something that doesn’t know we exist.” (Selected Poems of Kenneth Patchen, A New Directions Paperback, N.Y., 1936) Patchen’s poem might well be relevant to us in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Many of us were afraid of Covid 19 until it was explained. Now, there are some among us whose remarks about the risk of the various vaccines are elevating the fear levels of many in the community. Somehow or other, the fear of potential terror and disaster comes to gnaw away at the human psyche. Today’s readings combine to reassure us that we have a God whose relentless love reaches out to all of us human beings who are lost in the darkness of fear, doubt, uncertainty and ignorance. Today’s gospel-reading proclaims that God’s love for the world is personified in Jesus who came to be one of us as our brother. But that won’t chase Covid away.
Today’s first reading from Chronicles makes reference to a different pandemic. – a pandemic of evil which has not only infected the minds and hearts of the Jewish priests and leaders, but which has filtered down to the people themselves, who have adopted the abominations of their pagan neighbours. Yet, despite their sinful history, despite the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem and the consequent deportation of the Chosen people into exile, God did not give up on them. Moreover, God chose the most unlikely rescuer for these people in the person of Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia: “From Cyrus king of Persia a proclamation: “God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build a Temple of worship at Jerusalem, in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return. – and may your God be with you! Move forward!” (Chronicles 36, 23). God can and does work in surprising and unexpected ways.
In the second reading from Ephesians, Paul launches into a flight of high emotion, describing himself, his community in Ephesus, and, indeed, all of humanity as “God’s work of art” (Ephesians 2, 9). In making that enthusiastic and confident claim, Paul emphasises that this is the gift of God’s measureless love and mercy, not something that we could ever earn. God loves us and all of creation unconditionally. Therein lies an invitation to us to stop, take in and appreciate all the rest of God’s works of art with whom we live and work, and the created world that surrounds us.
In the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (from which Nicodemus disappears without explanation), Jesus refers obliquely to his forthcoming death by crucifixion: “the Son of man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” (John 3, 14). In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes two other references to being lifted up (on the Cross). In speaking to the Jews he says: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He” (one with God the Father, the Christ of God – John 8, 28). The third is recorded in John 12, 32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.”
In making these statements, Jesus is encouraging anyone who will hear him to come to appreciate that his death on the Cross will be the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world. In his self-offering Jesus reveals God’s relentless love for humanity. Despite the fact that humanity, down through the centuries, has turned its back on God’s love, God does not stop offering it. Maybe, we will come eventually to realise what God is offering us, and come to accept it.
In alluding to the Exodus story of Moses being directed by God to fashion a bronze serpent for the people to gaze upon after they had been bitten by venomous snakes, Jesus was making the point that we humans only come to understand evil (symbolised by the bronze serpent) when we take time to look it in the face, reflect on it, and take steps to expel it from our lives, individually and collectively. By looking at the Cross of Jesus, we can come to comprehend the evil that put him there but also come to appreciate the immensity of his love for humanity that allowed him to let his executioners have their way.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life” is a statement that has captured the attention of countless Christians and given them hope. However, it has to be considered in the context of what Jesus had shared with Nicodemus both before and after he made that statement. In that long conversation, Jesus makes reference to darkness and light, judgement and salvation, death and life, doubt and belief, but these are not simply insulated opposites. They ebb and flow in and out of one another. We all have experiences of doubt and belief, of light and darkness and so on. Nicodemus, despite being educated, respected and comfortable, didn’t have all the answers. He needed to be exposed to Jesus’ bewildering talk. So do we. And isn’t it appropriate that, after talking about a world that struggled with light and darkness, Jesus sent his disciples out into that world where they encountered the Samaritan woman. Isn’t that a clear indication that God’s love is for the whole world, without exception? But we have to welcome and embrace that love.