Thought for the week - 5 March 2023
We must resist the temptation to allow Lent to make us gloomy people. That’s hard, isn’t it, because Lent is very much about preparing for the passion and death of a man, and even though the death brings victory, it is a victory that this season does its best to obscure for us, through more sombre hymns, through the Stations of the Cross, through penitence and fasting. However, we are also to resist things in Lent, so let us resist gloom and darkness and remember that this is a gift of silence and stillness in a noisy and busy world. A little retreat, a small time out, a love letter from God, inviting us to spend more time with Him and to abide with Him a little closer.
Nicodemus, in the Gospel today, lives a little Lent of his own. He goes to Christ under cover of darkness, he is admitted to a private question and answer session with the Son of Man – and both choose their words carefully. Nicodemus knows that he won’t have very long with Jesus and Jesus knows that He needs to get through to Nicodemus in the language he understands – that of Jewish scripture, which Nicodemus knows inside out. Nicodemus affirms what his faith and his study of scripture has led him to believe ‘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’ – this statement invites Christ to affirm that he is indeed the Messiah, without Nicodemus having to actually say it.
Jesus uses powerful imagery to affirm the questioning almost-faith of Nicodemus, invoking metaphors about entering a womb twice, and rebirth in water and Spirit, before figuratively blowing a gale through the Jewish faith of Nicodemus as He says ‘The wind blows where it chooses’ – that is, you have come to me at night to question me in the dark, but I am a great gale which will destroy your temple and raze Jerusalem to the ground and destroy all you hold dear to give birth to a new life, a new Covenant, but I am still able to be a slight breeze and stand here, Nicodemus, with you, and draw you close to me. It’s as though Nicodemus is in the eye of the storm, soon there will be destruction, fear and havoc on Calvary hill, but now, the great God deigns to allow this questioning man a little time alone with him in relative peace and serenity. Nicodemus, you could argue, is given the first Lent.
In this gift to Nicodemus, Jesus is explaining all suffering, and his suffering, as a process. He uses the imagery which will be familiar to Nicodemus of the serpent in the desert being lifted high by Moses. In an incident in the Exodus of the People from Egypt in the desert, many were bitten by what are still called in Africa ‘fiery serpents’. These must be removed carefully, so that the head doesn’t break off in the wound. The way to do this is to wind the snake’s body on a stick and twist slowly. Moses may have made a medical model of this.
It became a symbol in the People’s memory, of the healing power, through Moses, from God. Jesus means that the whole process is to be done by us, slowly and carefully, copying himself. He is to be held up on the Cross, as a sign of how God’s healing love works. Not to see all this, in faith, is not to see all there is in love and through this, through the wound of the snake and the wounds of the nails, we are made free. Free from slavery in Egypt and now free from slavery to sin by the cross.
This is all joyful, life affirming stuff, just it can be hard to see sometimes, because we allow our penitence to overtake the reason for the penitence. We are not convicts on a pointless treadmill, but members of the one Body of Christ ascending a hill of grace and hope.