THE MAN WHO VISITED JESUS AT NIGHT
2 CHRONICLES 36:14-16, 19-23 EPHESIANS 2:4-10 JOHN 3:14-21
Today we listen very closely to a teaching Jesus gave to a clandestine follower. This is how John introduced him in his gospel. “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night.” First of all, he was a Pharisee.
The Pharisees took an oath to follow every letter of the Law – and they did. It was a 24/7 life commitment. The word Pharisee means “separated one.” They separated themselves from ordinary life and ordinary people in order to carry out every precept of the law. The Pharisees were the epitome of orthodoxy.
Second, Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews.” He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the court of 70 members that had ultimate jurisdiction over all Jews. It was at the Sanhedrin’s debate about how to deal with Jesus that Nicodemus argued that Jesus should be brought in to defend himself before they
formed any judgment about him.
He was attracted to Jesus and his message but had many questions. He couldn’t ask them when Jesus was publicly teaching because of his sensitive position. Opposition to Jesus was growing among the members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus needed to keep his opinion of Jesus private, and so he came to speak with Jesus under the cover of darkness. What we read in the gospel passage today is a portion of what Jesus shared with Nicodemus.
Jesus revealed the meaning of his death. He linked the image of the cross to the redemptive image of the bronze serpent. The book of Numbers records an incident when the Israelites had lost their trust in God and turned on Moses. “Why have you brought us up from the land of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food.”
God freed them from the slavery of Egypt, protected them from enemy tribes and fed them with manna every day, but still, they lost their faith in God. As a punishment God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. Many people died from their bites. But at the pleading of Moses God relented from the punishment. He instructed Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole and to lift it up for the people to see. Everyone who looked at the image was healed.
By connecting this image to his crucifixion Jesus was teaching that his death would be redemptive. Looking at him crucified, opening our hearts to him and believing in him is the source of eternal life. Jesus went deeper into the teaching.
In the desert the people despaired because they had forgotten how much God loved them. Continuing to explain the meaning of his crucifixion Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but might have eternal life.”
Nicodemus, the ultra-orthodox Pharisee who thought he would win God’s love by following every precept of the Law, was confronted by the reality of God’s love. God wasn’t waiting for an opportunity to punish him. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God, the Eternal One, doesn’t want to condemn anyone. God wants to share his life – Eternal Life.
I’ll leave you with an image from our liturgy. When I walk around the altar to incense it at Mass I stop at the center of the altar, bow, and incense the golden crucifix mounted high on a golden pole. I listen to his words as I watch the smoke rise to the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
JESUS CLEANSES THE TEMPLE
EXODUS 20:1-17 1 CORINTHIANS 1:22-25 JOHN 2:13-25
Let’s begin today’s reflection by putting the account of the cleansing of the temple into context.
It was Passover time. Jewish law obliged every adult male who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem to attend the feast, so Jerusalem was jammed. In addition to the population around Jerusalem Jewish pilgrims flooded in from the entire empire. An ancient historian wrote that Jerusalem could see as many as two million pilgrims during Passover!
During the festival it was common for individuals to sacrifice animals for the atonement of their sins or for a variety of intentions. These animals had to be approved for purity before the priests would accept them for sacrifice. There was a hefty fee for this approval. Passover was also an opportunity for pilgrims to pay the obligatory temple tax. Secular currency wasn’t permitted in the temple, so all currency had to be changed to the approved temple shekel. Of course, a fee was tacked on to the exchange.
Where was all this happening?
The temple was divided into sections: the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, the court of the Israelites, the court of the priests and, in the interior of the temple, the Holy of Holies. The activity the gospel describes, people coming and going, buying and selling, haggling over fees, and the ruckus of the animals, took place in the court of the Gentiles. This was the only place where non-Jews were permitted to pray. It was being desecrated and de facto excluded Gentiles from the temple.
What’s the meaning of this event?
Don’t you find it interesting that no one
stopped Jesus when he began knocking over the tables and driving out the money changers. We’re told that his disciples immediately thought of a prophetic verse from Psalm 69:9-10: “I have become an outcast to my kin, a stranger to my mother’s children. Because zeal for your house consumes me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” The religious leaders were aware of this and other prophecies that said the Messiah would reveal himself by entering the temple and purifying it. Evidently Jesus made just enough trouble to catch their attention. They immediately asked him by what authority he did this: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They wanted to see a miracle or some powerful event to back up his prophetic actions.
What sign did Jesus show the religious leaders?
He didn’t show them anything…yet. Instead he made a prophecy. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” At that time the temple was still under construction and had been so for forty-six years. Jesus was referring to the temple of his body; they understood him literally and mocked him for his answer. The evangelist notes that his disciples remembered this statement after he was raised from the dead.
How did the incident end?
Everybody began watching Jesus. Some were impressed with the signs (miracles) he worked and believed in him. Others, like the religious leaders, began to scrutinize his every word and action. The account ends with a comment. “Jesus would not trust himself to any of them because he knew them all and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself knew it well.”
What are some thoughts we can glean from this account of the cleansing of the temple?
First, his actions were a declaration that he was the Messiah. The new time had arrived and the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled.
Second, by cleansing the court of the Gentiles Jesus was opening the doors of the kingdom to everyone. He fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 51:9)
Third, he was announcing a new time – a new world. As he would tell the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
What does this incident have to do with our Lenten journey?
Jesus’ actions in the temple remind us that we must be open to all people of good faith – people who are searching for God. Our preaching must be that of Jesus. There’s a place for everyone in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ arms are open, and so should ours be. If there are attitudes or prejudices that make us unwelcoming they need to be cleansed from our hearts. Lent is the perfect time to take a personal inventory of our attitudes towards others.
Christianity is perhaps the most challenging of all religions when it comes to acceptance. St. Paul stressed this to the people of Galatia: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
As Christians, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, we’ve barely paid lip service to this most basic of Christian principles. Instead, we herald what separates us. I’m Catholic. I’m Greek Orthodox. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Church of Christ. We even use what’s most sacred to us, the Holy Eucharist, as a wedge between us. It’s not so easy to change a Church but each of us can change our hearts. If enough hearts change, the Churches will change.
The cleansing of the temple is a powerful Lenten image. It’s a call to cleanse our hearts, to use the love in our hearts to welcome and embrace, to heal and unite. It’s a call for us to become the new temple – the body of Christ.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
GENESIS 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18. ROMAN 8:31B-34 MARK 9:2-10
In the gospel narratives, the transfiguration of Jesus is a prelude to the resurrection to come. After the three disciples had witnessed his transfiguration Jesus told them not to say anything about what they had seen. Mark ends the passage by commenting that “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” This comment throws a challenge our way. We, like those disciples, must discover what the resurrection means.
Every year, for a period of forty days, we dedicate ourselves to acts of penance and fasting to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Have you ever asked yourself why we go through all of this just to celebrate a moment in ancient history?
Actually, we’re not celebrating a historical anniversary. Fasting and penance are the tools, along with prayer and acts of charity, that we use to lift ourselves from the earthly plain to the spiritual plain the eternal now. This is where we discover the meaning of “rising from the dead.”
We can, and should, remember Jesus as an historical figure. He was a teacher, healer and miracle worker. He was betrayed by one of his followers, and sadistically executed. This is the story of the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth.
The accounts of his resurrection and appearances to his disciples give witness to a Jesus liberated from the constraints of the historical plain. He appears to his disciples while they’re in hiding in the upper room. He teaches them. He eats with them. He appears to two of them as they flee Jerusalem. He teaches them and breaks bread with them. He promises that he’ll be with them until the end of time. This is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus, the universal Christ. He’s no longer bound by the restrictions of space and time.
The transfiguration is an icon of the resurrected Christ who in union with all of salvation history, past and present. In the eternal now, he’s in conversation with Moses and Elijah while still present to the three disciples who came with him to the mountaintop. This is the Jesus who said “this is my body – this is my blood” at the Last Supper. This is the resurrected Christ who speaks those same words at our Eucharist.
Lent is our communal retreat when we contemplate the meaning of the resurrection. This comes through prayer and an inner purification that frees us to love more deeply – to love as Jesus loved – unconditionally.
Lent is the time when Christians stop to reflect on the meaning of “rising from the dead.” The transfiguration is the icon the Church gives us for our contemplation. This image of the resurrected Christ is our invitation to transcend the earthly plain and to follow him.
GENESIS 9:8-15 1 PETER 3:18-22 MARK 1:12-15
Here we are marking the First Sunday in Lent. Last year we couldn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday, and we couldn’t celebrate Holy Week. It seems like we’ve been trapped in a year that never ends. The account of Christ in the desert is an appropriate image of what we’ve been experiencing. It has been a year of endless “temptation.”
What the gospel narrates can be applied so easily to us and our experience. “The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan.”
I personally believe that we’re experiencing a Spirit-directed time of temptation. But we must remember that with the temptation comes God’s grace. We’ve been forced to realize how fragile our health is. At the same time, we’ve been forced to see how fragile our country is. Our time of temptation isn’t over. Covid still rages, and the battle to preserve our democracy continues. We’re still in the desert.
The evangelist adds an important sentence to his account of Christ’s temptation that we need to note: “He was among the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.”
Here, Mark is recalling Isaiah’s prophecy of universal peace when the lion and lamb will live together in a new world – the kingdom of God. The angels who come to minister to him during his temptation will again minister to Jesus during his final temptation in the garden of Gethsemane as he begins his Passover into the new Eden. Mark is telling us that a
time of temptation always opens up to a time of grace.
This year’s 40 days of Lent are, perhaps, the most important time we’re ever going to experience. Temptations are sent to us to make us strong. We’re being challenged to renew our faith with a vigor and fervor we’ve never imagined. But the Spirit is with us in our temptation. We’re being guided by that same Spirit to open our eyes – to envision, maybe for the first time, the world God intended for us – the kingdom of God. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “the world as we know it is passing.” May his kingdom come.
Heavenly Father, I pray your Son’s prayer in a special way today. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” May Christians, and all people of good faith, join together as brothers and sisters united in love for one another. May the sacrifices we make for the good of all help to bring about your reign, your kingdom on earth.