If Nicodemus was around today, he might have been a politician – one of the quiet ones, rarely seen on TV, but respected by his peers for his sincerity and intelligent approach to important issues. He would probably have a law degree and live quietly in an up-market house in a leafy suburb. The Nicodemus we read about in John’s Gospel is the man who visited Jesus under the cover of night. He was a Pharisee, familiar with the many facets and restrictions of his religion, trained to think clearly and rationally. He was also quietly open to new ideas, but concerned about being seen with someone as controversial as Jesus.
Somewhere, sometime, he had come across Jesus. Nicodemus’ religious certitude had been rattled by this preacher from a country backwater whose words threw into doubt his neatly-packaged, formally worded God knowledge. Was Jesus the messiah they had been waiting, a messiah who spoke of crops and light, of a kingdom where being weak was a blessing ?
Jesus was so patient with this serious man who had a lot of trouble coming to terms with imagery about light and dark and being born again, words that frustrated his single track thinking. His rational mind coped wonderfully with Jewish law, but what Jesus asked for and offered was much more tenuous – a faith that could embrace the mind boggling fact of God’s love for each and every person. For a Pharisee like Nicodemus that was a big ask.
Judaism, like most religions, offered people certitude. Do this, believe that, follow the rules and God will smile on you. It reminds me of the catholicity of my youth. As a child I believed in God because my Catholic and Methodist family did. When I was confirmed in Grade 6 the way to be a good catholic was clear and concise – Mass on Sunday, regular confession, marry a catholic, keep the commandments and respect the priests and nuns. Initially it worked for me. Then about the same time that adulthood belatedly overtook me, Vatican 2 happened with all its exciting possibilities and changes. Like Nicodemus, doubt set in and I began to question my former oh-so-correct religious convictions and practices.
Certainty is seductive. In her book, Between the Dark and the Daylight, Benedictine Joan Chittester says: ‘Doubt is what shakes our arrogance and makes us look again at what we have never really looked at before. Without doubt there is little room for faith in anything.’ Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of darkness because if your life is recognizably religious, doubts are best kept under wraps.
For the last couple of centuries the institutional church has zeroed in on the religious education of children, mostly leaving adults on their own in their journey to an adult faith. We can ask questions but relevant answers are few. It can feel like losing your faith, when actually you are deeply involved in finding it.
Many of my questions in the years since Vatican 2 have centred around traditions and practices that originated centuries ago, or words that have drifted far from their original meaning. I say the Creed, but the way I understand its lists of beliefs is vastly different to what I was taught as a child. At the same time my questions have led me to a renewed appreciation of the Bible, a deeper understanding of sacramental imagery, an opening out to contemplative prayer.
I still identify as a catholic, but bit by bit my I have moved away from the institutional centre that once I assumed was the place to be – the place of certainty. Sitting out near the edge isn’t always comfortable, but it’s where me and my faith live.
Nicodemus must have kept asking the questions and pondering the words he heard in that after-dark meeting because although Joseph of Arimathea is the man we usually think of as the one who took Jesus down from the cross and took care of his body, but there was another person with him. It was Nicodemus – a role model for edge sitters like me.