Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Darkness provides a cover for deeds we do not want known, whether good or evil. Night is also a traditional time for study of the Scriptures (Ps 1:2). It can be a time when “my heart instructs me” (Ps 16:7) or when God visits us (Ps 17:3). Night brings rest and restorative sleep. During winter, when the nights are longer than the days, darkness incubates the earth and invites cocooning and inward journeying. Whether darkness is masking sinful actions or simply letting us rest, it is shattered when light pierces it. The fourth Evangelist, in language evocative of the creation story in Genesis 1, tells how the “light shines in the darkness,” a light for all people, and “the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).
Light, in Genesis 1 and in our own springtimes, brings a burst of creative energy that shatters all lethargy and moves the earth and us into a growth spurt. Very often in the Scriptures, the divine presence and power are spoken of as light or radiance. Shekinah, the glory of God, filled the Temple (Ex 40:35) and was reflected on the face of Moses after his encounter with the Holy One on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:29). In John’s Gospel, it is Jesus who embodies the light (1:9; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 46), the enfleshed glory of God (1:14).
In today’s Gospel, coming to the light is presented as a conscious choice, one that can be difficult to make. Some people “preferred darkness.” Jesus contrasts those doing wicked things who shun the light with those who live the truth, who come to the light so that their works “may be clearly seen as done in God.” The Gospel paints the two in stark opposition, seeming to leave no space in between: we are either doing wicked things in the darkness or living the truth in the light. Yet our experience is that we all do wicked things that we want to hide, while at the same time we carry that spark of divine light that urges us toward truth.
Just as Earth only gradually comes into the full light between its turn at the spring equinox and the summer solstice, so our coming to the Light is a gradual process. That is the way it is for Nicodemus. He first meets Jesus in the darkness, taking an initial tentative step toward the Light. By the end of John 3, he is still not ready to commit himself fully to Jesus. He reappears in Jn 7:50, where he tentatively defends Jesus before his fellow religious leaders, who are looking to arrest Jesus. Finally, at the end of the Gospel, he comes with Joseph of Arimathea, bringing 100 pounds of spices for Jesus’ burial (19:39)—a truly grandiose expression of his definitive choice to come to the Light.
Whatever fears keep us from coming to the Light can be allayed by the mercy and compassion to be found there. All of today’s readings stress God’s mercy and compassion, the great love, kindness and grace extended to us in Christ. He lifts us up from whatever darkness holds us bound. To Nicodemus, Jesus recalls the time when the Israelites were bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert and Moses fashioned a bronze serpent on a pole; whenever people were bitten, they looked upon it and lived (Nm 21:8-9). In the same way, whenever we look at the battered body of Jesus raised up on a cross, he helps us to overcome our fears of violence and death, or of anything else that the darkness hides, as not only he, but all of us are raised up with him in God’s light (Eph 2:6).
It is for life eternal, which we can already taste now, that the Light has come, not for condemnation. The famous verse Jn 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”) stresses God’s love, not any wish to condemn the world. The “world” is the special object of God’s love and the arena in which we respond to the offer of divine love. The giving of the Son is not the handing of him over to death, but rather the giving of him to us as Light incarnate. Refusal of the gift is choosing darkness that brings condemnation. Acceptance of the gift draws us into deepening faith as we choose again and again to live into the Light.