The New Birth: Nicodemus' and Ours: Reflections on John 3:1-17
I believe that Nicodemus, when he came to Jesus ("by night," the text is careful to point out) was already in the throes of new birth. He felt trapped in his current Pharisaical life and beliefs. They were strangling his spirit like a cord around the neck. I have developed an empathy and a fondness for Nicodemus. I wish the same thing for him spiritually that I've said about my grandson's birth. I wish Nicodemus could be born again spiritually in a joyful, obstacle free, timely and painless way. But the rest of the Gospel of John doesn't bear out that pretty picture, by my reading anyway. From my reading of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus never quite experiences that new birth. Spiritually he remains half in and half out of the womb, surely an awkward and painful place to be. Spiritually he remains in mid labor.
That, at any rate, is how I interpret his two subsequent cameo appearances in the rest of the Gospel of John. In John 7, against the advice of "the chief priests and the Pharisees," Nicodemus defends Jesus, advising his colleagues to hear and investigate before making a final judgment against Jesus. In chapter 19 when Jesus is buried, Nicodemus brings an extraordinary amount of myrrh and aloes for the embalming of Jesus' body according to Jewish custom (Jn. 19:39). Even given John's penchant for extravagance, that amount is extraordinary. (Brown, 941) Reading between the lines, it seems to me as if Nicodemus could never quite emerge from his old life into his new birth. Both his defense of Jesus and the extraordinary amount of burial spices have always struck me as too little, too late.
That hasn't kept Nicodemus from being venerated as a saint in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches commemorate Nicodemus on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, celebrated on the second Sunday after Easter. In Roman martyrology Nicodemus is commemorated along with Joseph of Arimathea on August 31. In medieval art, there are many depictions of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea removing the dead Christ from the cross, often with the aid of a ladder.
The gospels invite us to enter into the narratives by identifying with various characters and changing as they do throughout the story. In honor of Nicodemus during this Lenten season, let us participate in his and our own new birth. Let's do our part in the process of breaking free of the old and entering into the new and abundant life God has in store for all of us. Now rather than later!
Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible Gospel According To John XIII-XXI (New York: Doubleday, 1979).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.