It is impossible to reflect on the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus in today’s Gospel without thinking about Baptism. In fact, the importance of Baptism was St John’s purpose in memorializing the encounter. Jesus taught unequivocally about the necessity of water and spirit for Nicodemus to be born anothen (sometimes translated born from above or born again). Without such, no one can even see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3-5).
The context for Nicodemus’ encounter is revealed in the last verses of the preceding chapter. It was the time for Passover, when Jews remembered their freedom from the slavery of Egypt, and in particular, Moses who delivered them. Now more than a thousand years later, first century Jews again needed someone like Moses to deliver them from the Romans. Jewish leaders in the Sanhedrin had accommodated Roman occupation to remain in power. The Temple system had become corrupt, preying on those who came to celebrate the Feasts. Now after His cleansing of the Temple, some began to believe that this Jesus might be the awaited Messiah; the prophet prophesied in the Torah (Dt 18:15-19). In fact, Jesus’ first sign, transforming water into wine, reminded the people of Moses. Consistent with their human nature, some of the people looked to these material signs for their faith in Jesus. Jesus understood human nature and would not trust Himself to those who looked only for signs (Jn 2:23-24).
St. John thereby set the stage for Nicodemus, a man whom Jesus would trust. A Pharisee, who took the chance to come and speak to Jesus at night, unseen by others, Nicodemus was different (Jn 3:1-2). He understood God was with Jesus and that His signs necessarily flowed from that reality. Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel (Jn 3:10) yet he called Jesus “Rabbi” (teacher). Humility was a rare trait for a Pharisee, much less one who was a leader of the Jews and a member of the Sanhedrin. Jesus saw an open heart, one which believed—seeking to be taught and understand. Nicodemus was then instructed on that which would make him a true disciple of Jesus (Jn 3:26, 4:1).
“Crede ut intelligas” St Augustine wrote around 400AD – “Believe so as to understand.” This is so hard for some folks today, whose heart demands to understand as a precondition for belief. Many even leave His Church because of doubt over certain dogmas or teachings, yet still surmise Jesus will somehow trust Himself to them nonetheless. Perhaps, they are right, but only if St. John got it wrong.
A better approach is to emulate Nicodemus.
In the darkness personified by night, when faith appears to be lacking illumination, instead of staying away and looking for the persuasion of a sign, seek instead an encounter with Jesus who remains present and available in His body, the Church.