Father Hanly’s homily for 4th Sunday of Lent, Year B, is about Nicodemus.
First Reading: Second Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-23
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21
Today’s readings are so full, it’s hard to know, we’d be here all day just with one of them.
The first reading, of course, is the end of the children of Israel in the year 587. The Babylonians and the Chaldean army came down and destroyed every last thing that the people of Israel cherished. They destroyed the wall, they destroyed the city, they destroyed the palaces, they destroyed everything, and they killed and maimed and destroyed the people themselves.
And they took the blind man who was the head of this poor, sad Israeli uprising, and they took his two sons, and they brought him into Babylon.
And they took him and put the sons in front of him and they said, “So you will remember what kind of people we are,” they took the two sons and, before the man’s eyes, they chopped off their heads.
And then they said to him, “And because of you, we will give you the final memory you had in this life and that final memory is to see your two sons destroyed.” And they tore out both his eyes so that would be the only thing that he had to carry with him into the Babylonian captivity.
This is very, very difficult. We sometimes think of the Old Testament as a kind of a prayer book or like not so (inaudible), but this is real life and, even in our own time, in our own wars that we have, the same thing happens.
But I’d like to get away from that. I’d like to talk maybe about one person, one person who lived in the time of Jesus, and one person who we, in a kind of a way, salute today, and this person is a Pharisee. His name is Nicodemus.
And our gospel opens with Nicodemus, who has gone in search of Jesus, but he comes only in the night. He kind of sneaks into the camp where Jesus was staying, and he does this because he is one of the leaders of Israel. Not only is he one who belongs to the Pharisee group…
The Pharisees were the strongest group among all the little groups in Israel, and they were better than everyone and they have a bit of a bad name because Jesus says many angry things about them.
But the reason he says angry things about them is because Jesus was a Pharisee. He was not a Pharisee in the club, but he was a Pharisee in what he thought of his Father and the whole history of Judaism.
And with every fibre, Jesus spoke of the tradition of his people. And the Pharisees were supposed to uphold that tradition, but they fell along the way and they became full of themselves and they became so demanding that no one could follow what they once preached.
And yet, a hundred years before, over two thousand Pharisees died fighting against the Greeks, who were trying very much to overturn the children of Israel, so in a way they were heroes.
Jesus smiles at him when he comes in at night, but he understands it’s not that Nicodemus was afraid, but Nicodemus belonged to the Sanhedrin which was the leading group of the (inaudible) people of that time and they were the ones, the high priests and the Sadducees and the Pharisees, were the ones who ran the country and they ran it very strictly.
So it was that he didn’t want to be seen visiting Jesus, who already had the beginning of a reputation as being against the government of Israel and he used to spend hours with the people talking to them about how their leaders should also become compassionate and loving and caring.
And this is what he came to do: to bring Israel back to its roots, to bring it away from all the terrible things that had happened, so it would make them realise that they were the children of God, the heirs of heaven, they were the ones who God loved and God cared for and God took care of down through the ages.
And so the little Pharisee was sitting there and he asked Jesus what he should do.
And Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
And he said, “How can I be born again? Must I enter my mother’s womb and be born again?”
And Jesus told him, “No.” He said,
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
That is what it means to be born again: to open your hearts and become one with the Lord, open your hearts and become one with God. And it’s a whole new life. And this is what it means to be born again, not in the flesh, but born again in the spirit.
And, of course, this is the teaching that we have when we bring little children in to be baptised. You are born again. You have become one with Jesus. His Father is your Father and the Spirit of God is your spirit.
Of course, Nicodemus was worrying about this, but Nicodemus was also someone who knew the theology of his people and he fell in love with Jesus and so he went out a different person.
And he went out a different person and then we wonder what happened to him.
Well, what happened to him was another episode. He, himself, one of the leaders, one of those who articulated the law for the people, he saw that the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but especially the high priests, were beginning to plot the death of Jesus.
And so he stood up for him in the Sanhedrin and he said, “No, this man, every man, has a right to be heard. Every man has a right to come before the Sanhedrin and speak and defend himself.”
Very courageous words, but they said to him, “You, too, are a Galilean?” And they threatened him with following what they wanted to follow, which was to destroy Jesus, who had come to upset everything that they themselves felt was important for the people.
So what happens to little Nicodemus?
We don’t know. But we know he remained very close to Jesus and the next time we find him in the gospel it is when Jesus is on the cross and Jesus dies on the cross, and Joseph of Arimathea, another secret disciple, took the body, both he and Nicodemus took the body down from the cross, and Nicodemus laid the body of Jesus in the arms of his mother.
And if you see Michelangelo’s portrait of taking Jesus down from the cross, you will see in the centre of the picture, a man filled with sadness and sorrow, but holding the body of Jesus and bringing him down from the cross to be given to his mother.
And that is the end of Nicodemus, but it is said of him that he, too, became a disciple, and that he lived the life of a fervent, fervent lover of Jesus himself.
That is the story of Nicodemus.
Was he a coward for going in the night?
No. He was being prudent, because as a leader of the Jews he didn’t want anybody to have misunderstandings and he knew that he was there just to find out what Jesus really was like — and he found out.
What kind of a person was he then?
He was a courageous man for, at the time when Jesus was beaten, when Jesus was nailed to the cross, when the whole countryside was screaming at him for being a fraud, it was this little Nicodemus that actually climbed the cross and brought him down.
And he brought with him myrrh and many spices, and he washed the body of Jesus with Joseph. And the two of them, with strips filled with the myrrh and the perfume, they wrapped the body of Jesus and put him in a grave, a grave that no-one had been in before, and then they turned back and went home.
And so, when we think of our approaching Holy Week, when we think of our approaching our ordinary things that we do for Jesus during this time, we should remember that our faith is based on the quiet heroism of the most peculiar people, and one of them, of course, is the Pharisee who took Jesus and gave him back to his mother.
This is a very wonderful ending to a very sad and terrible story.
And so, I think, during the few weeks that are still left for us, we must think not so much of the events of those days, we must think of all these little people who came and do the sort of kind of kindly compassionate reaching out to Jesus the Lord, and let them become our models, and let them be the ones who lead us for the second part of Lent. For today is Laetare Sunday and we have one half of Lent to go.
But don’t remember (inaudible), remember the people who were heroic and wonderful and to whom we owe these wonderful stories and the little things that they did that has come down from/for two thousand years, teaching us what Jesus said.
God so loved the world that He gave His Only Son that we might embraced him and with him live for all eternity in His arms.