"Jesus answered, and said to him: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:3).
We, the baptized, have been born anew. This can only sound routine if we have thoroughly domesticated our faith, but I am rather sure most of us have. With this new birth, we become capable not only of seeing the kingdom of God at the end of time, but even here and now in glimpses, the beginning of Christ's coming reign. There is nothing “ordinary” about this, even if it rolls off the tongue like a jingle or a Social Security Number. The goal of parish life is to remind us of the startling nature of our Baptism every day.
As Blessed Dom Columba Marmion would have us remember, we who are baptized would start each day at the 14th Station of the Cross, for we are buried with Christ in Baptism. There, nestled in the womb of Christ’s tomb, the rest of our day precedes as this and that moment of Resurrection, of crowning death with life, if and only if we begin our day in Mary’s hands as the corpse of Christ did 2,000 years ago.
Parish life should strike us as being that strange, or, we aren’t quite getting it.
To this point, a popular passage above from the Gospel of John shows us how thoroughly domesticated our faith is, precisely in how it is often misunderstood. Early in the Gospel, Nicodemus, an important Pharisee, comes to see Jesus in the middle of the night. And yes, it always seems that Jesus is up to something in the middle of the night—it is no wonder that his monks and nuns get up early in the dark to pray.
You see, Nicodemus is no dummy, which will be important in identifying my point: if he approaches Jesus during the day, his life as a ruler among the Jews is over. But the question that burns in his mind is too important to let it slip past his mind. So he seeks out Jesus, in the cover of night, like every bad teenager who is up to no good would do, finding this Rabbi who doesn’t fit the typical mold, to hear what he has to say.
Nicodemus levels with our Lord: you must be from God to say the things you say. No one can do what you do without God being on his side.
It isn’t even really a question, but in enunciating a declarative sentence, Nicodemus signals the great befuddled stupor he is in. But Jesus gives an answer as if the wise man asked something specific: “Unless a man be born again . . .”
Here is where people come up with some of the strangest notions about this text, but I am not sure I have heard a sermon or read an essay that veers any other direction. Nicodemus makes a fairly straightforward observation “how is it possible that a man should be born when he is already old?” He then makes the famous remark that a man cannot re-enter his mother's womb.
As many homilies would have it, the problem with Nicodemus is that he is a literalistic idiot who doesn't understand metaphor, as if some 1st Century Neil deGrasse Tyson deadpans in response: “Jesus, the physics of it all doesn't make sense, let alone the biology . . . her stomach isn't big enough!
But Nicodemus is a student of the law, one of the most educated men of his time. Anyone who has read the Talmud knows that Rabbis are not prone to wooden, literal meanings of texts. The man is wise enough to sneak out after dark to get his questions answered, starts off the whole discourse by pointing out that everything in the Old Law points to Christ as the Messiah. Once again, he is no dummy! His point is much deeper.
Instead, like a good rabbi, Nicodemus is simply extending the metaphor Jesus uses to make a deeper point: nothing that has grown old is ever made new. The saying of our grandparents' generation captures this well: “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Sure, maybe you can give a car a new paint job, give an old man some plastic surgery, do some cosmetic work to make the thing look better. However, they will never be “born again,” they will never become revitalized, they will never get a chance to start over. Nicodemus is making the point via hyperbole: “If a grown man cannot reenter his mother's womb, then nothing can be born again, to become new once more.” So instead of being a take-everything-literal dunce, Nicodemus is getting to the very heart of the matter: in this world, the minute something is born, it begins to die. Nothing is truly born again.
And here in the dregs of Ordinary Time, with a new school year, a new football season, a new shopping season, we begin to feel like it is the same things that life throws at us, over and over again. We see the same sales. We hear the same news. We confess the same sins. Nicodemus, as it turns out, is no literalist dummy—he is wise, and his wisdom rings truer to our ears than any other time of year. Nothing is truly ever born again.
Nothing, that is, until God Himself wills it different. The entirety of John 3 declares how all things are different now, all things will be made new, all because God Himself has come in Jesus Christ. But if we just make Nicodemus a dullard, then Jesus is just making an obvious correction: “Don't take things so literally Nicodemus!” We make Nicodemus into a dullard so we can domesticate the Word of God for another season.
But Nicodemus is no dummy. His point about the way of the world is indeed wise. What then can we say about Jesus’s words, other than they are something earth-shatteringly foolish in the face of the world’s wisdom. With God, whose Spirit “blows where it will,” even things old and worn out, even worn out by sin and death, can be born again. Old dogs can learn new tricks. Things can start over. Maybe your football team can win it all. Maybe someone will actually love your gift this year. Maybe that someone will forgive you. Maybe, you don’t have to be the same anymore. It makes sense, once more, to truly hope that in the end, all things will regain their vigor, their vitality.
As Christ says in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Featured Image: Nikolai Ge, Christ and Nicodemus, 1889; PD-Old-100.