Homily for Sunday, March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Lent is a bit like the movie “Groundhog Day.” “Groundhog Day” is about the arrogant big-city weatherman sent to small-town Pennsylvania to cover Ground Hog Day and who is rude and condescending to the locals. Because of his attitude, he must relive February 2 until he gets it “right” – until he develops some humility and charity. Lent is like “Groundhog Day” because every year Lent offers the same prayers, the same hymns, and – on a three-year cycle – the same Scripture readings so that we might get it “right” and develop more humility and charity.
But Lent is different from “Groundhog Day” because Lent offers a clear path as to how we can get it more “right.” Sunday by Sunday, over the course of Lent, the Scriptures take us by the hand and lead us, step-by-step, progressively deeper into relationship with Jesus.
Last Sunday began our Lenten journey with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Like all Bible stories, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is not just about Jesus but is about us. It invites us to enter into our own “wilderness,” everything within that hinders us from being fully alive. The story reminds us that, no matter the extent of our wilderness, Jesus has been there – Jesus is there – and, if we let him, can lead us out and help us to become fully alive.
If last Sunday told us the first step on our path – acknowledging the wilderness and recognizing that Jesus is there and can help – today’s Gospel – the famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus – shows us the second step. The next step in our path is, like Nicodemus, to risk drawing near to Jesus. We can be quite quiet and private about drawing near – notice how Nicodemus came to Jesus by night – but the next step is to risk drawing near to Jesus; or at least being open to letting him draw near to us. It’s not always easy to draw near to Jesus – Jesus knows us intimately and loves us deeply – and it may take us a while for us to screw up the courage to draw near. Which I imagine it did for Nicodemus, too. I like to think of Nicodemus as sizing Jesus up for a long time – noticing how gracious Jesus was when he taught, how attentive he was when he listened, and how “good” it felt inside when Nicodemus was in Jesus’ presence. I think Nicodemus sized Jesus up at a distance for a long time before he risked drawing near.
And I wonder, too, if, when Nicodemus finally came to Jesus, it took him a while to find the courage to speak. I like to think the two just sat in silence for while, Nicodemus listening in the dark to Jesus’ breathing, deep and calm; Jesus listening to Nicodemus’ breathing, shallow and anxious. Then, finally summoning the courage, Nicodemus speaks: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Right then, in risking to engage Jesus, to let him in and share what was on his heart, the door was opened to deeper relationship. We don’t know much about Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus – Nicodemus appears only twice more in John’s gospel – but we do know, from the seed sown that evening – from Nicodemus’ risk of drawing near to Jesus and then opening himself and sharing – a relationship grew that was deep enough for Nicodemus, after Jesus’ crucifixion, to bring “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about 100 pounds,” with which to bury Jesus. Some commentators guess that in today’s money, 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes would be worth between $150,000 and $200,000. Jesus came to mean a lot to Nicodemus!
It all began when Nicodemus risked drawing near to Jesus. Aware of the “wilderness” within himself, knowing that Jesus would be able to lead him out and into fuller life, Nicodemus risked drawing near to Jesus. It may have taken a while for Nicodemus to draw near, and it may have taken him a while to speak and share, but when he did, he discovered a relationship that changed his life.
In the early Church, the readings we’re hearing this Lent are the same readings that were used to prepare catechumens for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. The catechumens would have been preparing for Baptism for two or three years, and these Scriptures of Lent would have reminded them in a few brushstrokes of their path to becoming fully alive. They would be reminded that there is somebody with us in this wilderness, who has been there himself and who can lead us out. They would be reminded that the next step was to risk drawing near to this man, and to engage and share with him. They would probably recall their initial encounters with Jesus and how they had sized him up from a distance. They would probably remember how their relationship with Jesus had begun tentatively and in the dark. They might recall the first time they dared to speak, just a few words in the dark, and how those few words had blossomed into a friendship like no other, a friendship that had changed their lives.
I invite us this week to discover the Nicodemus within us. To acknowledge the wilderness within us, to own our yearning for fuller life. And then to dare to take a step closer. Maybe to sit down with him – just sit – and listen to his breathing, or maybe to your own. Take as long as you want to “size him up” and – when you’re ready – to just do it. Just engage him in conversation. Maybe tell Jesus the top five things on your heart. Or maybe tell him something you’re currently afraid of. Or something you desire. Engage with him; share with him; open yourself to him as much as you’re now able. And then pay attention to what it feels like to have drawn close and to have shared. If it felt good, maybe do it again…
I wonder if the Pope, in his exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” was thinking of Nicodemus when he wrote these words:
I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed, personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day… The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to discover that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. – Ev. Gaud. 3
This Lent, why not take the risk of drawing near to Jesus? It could be that your life will be changed, and that you will find what you are looking for.