By KATIE GROSS
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
He came to Jesus at night and said to him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,
for no one can do these signs that you are doing
unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him,
“How can a man once grown old be born again?
Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
Jesus answered, “…Do not be amazed that I told you,
‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills,
and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
One of my favorite “catch phrases” of the Catholic Church, if you will, is the ‘call to conversion.’ It’s easy to get confused about what this actually means. Many believe that a person onlyconverts once through baptism. However, conversion is actuallyan everyday choice that we as Christians must make—basically, choosing good over evil and right over wrong, even when it challenges us. After all, Nicodemus was once a Pharisee, but is now a venerated saint in the Catholic Church. And he’s not alone—St. Paul persecuted Christians, St. Augustine was a crazy rock-star orator, St. Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin, etc. Clearly, the saints of the Church are no strangers to conversion. Although this Gospel is primarily about conversion by Baptism, I also think it provides a beautiful example of this greater call to conversion—if you look a little closer.
He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” Because we live with electricity, the significance of something occurring “at night” in the Gospels may not immediately occur to us. However, St. John was an incredible writer, and he wrote things with a purpose—in this case,Nicodemus came to Jesus at night precisely because he did not want to be seen. He was afraid to step down from his position of power as a Pharisee, risking humiliation and the disgust of his peers from being seen with Jesus. But still, something made him go. We’ve all been in his shoes . Even with all of our pride and all of our distractions, there is still something that compels us to speak to God and to listen to Him. This is the first step—approaching God through prayer.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” I imagine that Nicodemus approached Jesus for some reassurance, or some casual conversation. No such luck. As Christians who have heard these readings for years, being “born again” probably doesn’t faze us, but Nicodemus was the first one to ever hear these words. He probably thought that Jesus was messing with him, or was just plain insane. Again, we’ve been there. Sometimes, the things that Jesus calls us to do defy all of our expectations, or even all of our human reason. Sometimes, we approach Jesus in prayer looking for reassurance or comfort, but are only challenged more. This Gospel reminds us that God is going to challenge us if we approach Him in prayer. Living according to the Gospel is going to challenge us. The teachings of the Church are going to challenge us. In fact, we should be concerned if we do not feel challenged! If there is no challenge, there is no conversion. “Do not be amazed that I told you,‘You must be born from above.”
“The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Finally, as much as we might like conversion to be a systematic, pass/fail system, it is not. Yes, we must try to correct our habits of sin, but we must also avoid getting in the mindset of behavior correction, where we believe that we can do it alone. C.S. Lewis has a great analogy for this that we recentlydiscussed in my theology class:
“Do not sit down and start watching your own mind to see if it is coming along. That puts a man quite on the wrong track. When the most important things in our life happen, we quite often do not know, at the moment, what is going on. A man does not always say to himself, “Hello! I’m growing up.” You can see it even in simple matters. A man who starts anxiously watching to see whether he is going to sleep is very likely to remain wide awake. As well, [conversion] may not happen to everyone in a sudden flash—as it did to St. Paul or Bunyan: it may be so gradual that no one could ever point to a particular hour or even a particular year. And what matters is the nature of the change in itself, not how we feel while it is happening.”
C.S. Lewis is dead on. Thanks be to God that with prayer, we can look back on events of the past and know that we have matured and grown since that time. This is conversion in real life—we do not know “where it comes from or where it goes,” but we can take great joy in cooperating with it and drawing closer to God through it.