The evangelist John in the Gospel for the fourth week of Lent introduces to us Nicodemus, a secret follower of Jesus. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and tribunal of the Jews. He was moved by Jesus’ teachings and miracles. One night, he furtively approached Jesus, evidently afraid of what the Pharisees would think of him if they saw him associating with the Rabbi, regarded by the Pharisees as an impostor.
After Jesus taught him how to gain eternal life, Nicodemus expressed his puzzlement over this statement. Jesus then explained that only by believing in the Son of Man can anyone gain eternal life. No one had ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
Nicodemus failed to understand what Jesus was saying because his faith in him was not wholehearted. He may be a follower of Jesus but he was not ready to profess his faith in Jesus to all, much less to his fellow Pharisees for fear of ridicule or being antagonized by them. Much like Nicodemus, it is when we do not fully pour out our hearts and minds, our whole being to Jesus when we fail to comprehend the will of God. Often, it is when faith is half-hearted and laden with all sorts of conditions that people easily lose their bearings and slip into sinfulness. This sin blinds us from recognizing the path of righteousness and the Holiness of Christ. Many of us would follow Christ on the condition that we are not burdened by heavy crosses; when the path to salvation is well-paved and laden with roses but would readily abandon the faith when faith becomes burdensome and demanding. Jesus spoke strongly against those whose faith is lukewarm, saying because “you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
But tradition holds that Nicodemus had a change of heart. It was Nicodemus who reminded the Sanhedrin that Jesus had the right to a trial. Together with St. Joseph of Arimathea, he prepared Jesus’ body and placed him in the tomb. Eventually he began to boldly profess his faith in Jesus Christ and for his faith, according to tradition, he was martyred.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus the importance of faith in him. Faith means following his will and commandments manifested in charity. Of the three essential gifts of the Spirit listed down in the Scriptures namely faith, hope and love, the last one—love—is the greatest. It is love that impelled God to send his only begotten son Jesus Christ into the world to suffer and save us from death. Love is the greatest because it is the very essence of God. Faith without love expressed through charity is empty. The Bible says that one might have faith so that he could move mountains, but if one has not love, it is nothing. Without God’s love, manifested through Jesus Christ, we are nothing.
St. Paul, teaching about spiritual gifts, emphasizes the essential importance of faith with love. He said: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” He then explains that charity is by suffering long, and is kind; not envious; not proud; is not easily provoked, does not think evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
When we help a fellow human being but do not love, it is hypocrisy. There is no love when we help a neighbor to commit sin or by silence we allow him to sin, such is the opposite of charity and love.
The life of Nicodemus and his encounters with the Messiah tells us a valuable lesson. While at first he was overcome with fear, but by tenaciously clinging to his faith in Jesus, Nicodemus became a true disciple, not a lukewarm one, and backed up his faith through works of mercy when he boldly defended Christ before his enemies and buried the still unglorified body of the Savior when even the apostles and other disciples were cowering in fear after Jesus’ crucifixion. Nicodemus is a true personification of three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
In his first Lenten homily this year Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, reflects on this first virtue. Using text from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, he exhorts us: “In a society in which everyone feels called to transform the world or the Church, this word of God breaks in inviting people to transform themselves: ‘Do not be conformed to this world.’ After these words we would expect to hear, “but transform it!” Instead it tells us, “Transform yourselves!” Transform the world, yes, but the world that is within you before thinking you can transform the world outside of you.
Cantalamessa continues with practical advice: “Let us focus for a bit on the significance of what follows: being transformed in the deep recesses of our minds. Everything in us begins in the mind, with thoughts. There is a wise maxim that says: “Watch over your thoughts because they become words. Watch over your words because they become actions. Watch over your actions because they become habits. Watch over your habits because they become your character. Watch over your character because it becomes your destiny.”
Where then does conversion begin? Prior to our works, according to Cantalamessa, change must come first in our way of thinking, that is, in our faith: “There are many causes at the origin of worldliness, but the principle one is the crisis of faith. In this sense the apostle’s exhortation is only repeating Christ’s exhortation at the beginning of his preaching: “Repent and believe”; repent, that is, believe! Change your way of thinking; stop thinking according to the “human way of thinking,” and start thinking according to “God’s way of thinking.”
As Lent concludes, let’s continue to ask for this grace of faith and conversion, to think as God did, to love our neighbor as fully and unconditionally as our Lord showed us, to forgive each other for whatever hurt we have done and have received—and yes, to love even our enemies.
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