by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Anyone who does evil things hates the light and will not come to the light because he/she does not want his/her evil deeds to be shown up.”
John 3, 14-21
My limited knowledge of Art History tells me that Rembrandt used light and shade (chiaroscuro) to represent the emotional life of many of his subjects. He employed that technique in over thirty etchings and drawings of himself and in more than 40 self-portraits. These works reveal an extraordinary depth of self-analysis. Art historians suggest that, for Rembrandt, this was his way of coming to know his inner self before he could embark on exploring the emotional depths of others.
Today’s gospel reading from John is rather like an invitation to each of us to shine the light on ourselves as we embark on a journey of self-exploration. By means of a fairly heady theological exercise, John uses a word picture to identify personal conscience as the arena in which our desire to pretend and our urge to be truthful do battle with one another.
One of the fears from which many of us suffer is that other people will come to know our sinful past – the times when we have compromised ourselves, when our moral integrity has crumbled. Those around us know that they, too, are not exactly paragons of virtue. So, I suspect that most of our embarrassment about having our sins exposed comes from the fact that our attempts to be secretive about our failures, our efforts to cover up, have failed.
Today’s gospel adds another twist to this story, for John seems to be suggesting that our efforts at cover-up are less about preventing others from knowing the truth about us and more about putting obstacles in the way of having to admit the truth about ourselves.
John adds yet another twist when he points out that, while many have come to discover the real truth about Jesus, they cover it up – because they are embarrassed about being seen as followers of Jesus. And if we are really honest with ourselves, we may have to admit that there are times when we feel torn between belief and unbelief when it comes to trusting in Jesus and pinning our colours to his Gospel. Yet deep down we know and value what Jesus is all about. We know that he is light – something like the light that Rembrandt has succeeded in creating in his self-portraits – a light that helps us to see ourselves as we really are, and intensifies the pain that is part of self-searching and self-discovery. The light of Jesus and his teaching can make us cringe with shame and embarrassment when we know that something we have done has exceeded the boundaries of what we know to be right.
Having embarked on this somewhat sensitive topic, John is slow to let go of it. He drives home the point that we actually know the sources of discomfort with ourselves – our desire for power, our longing for wealth and comfort, our urge to manipulate and use others, our wanting to get even with those who have offended us, our reluctance to reach out to those whom our society has discarded, our tendency to rationalize when we err, our hidden jealousies of others when they succeed. We are reluctant to have light from anywhere shine on these aspects of our lives, for then we might have to acknowledge that what we see is really who we are.
All this is a prelude to John’s central message for this Fourth Sunday of Lent: Even though we are slightly wicked and hesitant to admit it to ourselves and others, even though our world is tainted by the moral squalor of violence, terrorism, corruption and war-mongering, we and our world are the object of God’s boundless love. That is John’s utter conviction.
Today’s gospel is essentially a lesson in practical theology, triggered by Nicodemus, a Pharisee who, intrigued by Jesus and his preaching, had arranged to meet with him by night. Nicodemus did not want the embarrassment of being seen in discussion with Jesus by other Pharisees. Nicodemus’ embarrassment parallels the embarrassment we would feel if our friends and colleagues were to see what we are really like in all our weakness, fragility and vulnerability. And perhaps there are also times when we are embarrassed about being seen in the company of Jesus. In his exchange with Nicodemus, Jesus revealed a much bigger God than Nicodemus and we could imagine. Jesus spoke of a God who is very different from the God of the Pharisees. The God of Jesus was not someone to be satisfied by strict observance of rules, regulations and laws. The God whom Jesus revealed to Nicodemus is a God of love and forgiveness, not a God of condemnation and retribution. Jesus’ God is a God of compassion, mercy, welcome and boundless love. And that’s why John can attribute to Jesus those memorable words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that those who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3, 16).
Jesus was the incarnation of God’s love in the world. As followers of Jesus, our role is to make God’s love tangible wherever we live and work. Perhaps we can learn something about how to do it from the great American novelist, Stephen King. In an interview with Alison Flood of the Guardian newspaper in 2014, King stated that, while he had doubts about organised religion, he had grown up as a Methodist and still chose to believe in God (The Guardian, Oct 30, 2014). In an earlier article for Family Circle magazine (Nov 1, 2001), King wrote:
“So I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others. And why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All that lasts is what you pass on…Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. I give because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive.”
Despite his doubts about organised religion, King has an appreciation of the values of God. He knows that God loves creation too much to write it off. He has learned to see others as God sees them, and is prepared to do his bit in order to share something of God’s hope and love for our world. Today’s gospel asks me if that’s how I live, too.