Saint Joseph Old Cathedral & Saint Anthony Hospital
Numbers 21, 4-9 + Psalm 78 + 2 Philippians 2, 6-11 + John 3, 13-17
Nicodemus is a man in the Gospel who has fascinated me for years. His conversations with Jesus are profound and deeply personal efforts to come to life and to faith. He takes risks and is willing to challenge his secure life style by asking important questions. He is open to something new when it is unexpected and comes out of nowhere challenging his old ways of thinking and acting. In many ways he is a model of seekers everywhere and especially those we now call “candidates” and “catechumens” in RCIA. One of the things about him and the way John presents him in the Gospel is that he comes to Jesus in the night, and then suddenly he show up in the day. John’s Gospel is full of contrasts that play light and darkness against one another for way more than a dramatic effect. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, and then after the crucifixion, he comes in the daylight with “one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh, and aloes” accompanying Joseph of Arimathea to anoint the body of Jesus. What happened we should wonder. What is the difference between his behavior by night and by day?
I think it is the Cross! Nicodemus, between the time he came in the night and that day when he shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea has seen the cross. He never tells us what the cross means to him, but we know what the cross does for him.
For more than four decades I have presided at the ancient Liturgy of Good Friday and watched prayerfully as countless men and women, boys and girls, have come to touch the cross with their lips or their hands. The expressions on faces and the careful way each one has looked upon the cross has left me with the feeling that an encounter with the cross is a deeply personal and unique experience. It means something different to every one of us. We all experience, understand, and look upon the cross in our own way with wonder, gratitude, confusion, doubt, fear, and faith because the cross is a mystery to us all. It is a mystery in the sense that it stirs up wonder and amazement, not in a sense that it is something we cannot understand.
At the center of everything we do as Christians there stands the cross. At the center of every church in which we worship, give thanks, and renew the covenant we have in the Eucharist there is the cross. We begin our prayers with the cross. The first gesture at Baptism is the signing of the cross. We step across the boundary of death anointed with the cross. We follow the cross in every procession because it is the center of our faith and the symbol of everything we believe and are as followers of Christ.
We may never forget that it was a horrible and cruel means of execution that caused suffering beyond our imagination. At the time of Christ the Romans used it exclusively for the worst of criminals and foreigners. With Christ however, this instrument of death and suffering becomes transformed into a symbol of life and the promise of glory, hope, and even joy. With Christ, because the cross was accepted out of love and obedience to the Father, this ugly symbol of suffering and shame becomes a symbol of hope and salvation. A dark and ugly thing becomes the source of light; as symbol of death becomes a symbol of life. Something happened to Nicodemus when he looked upon the cross. He is no longer a figure of the night troubled and puzzled, doubtful and fearful. We will never know what he thought or what he felt when he looked upon the cross; but we do know what the cross did for him.
It is with that same hope that we gather here under the cross. It has the power to take away fears and doubt. It has the power to lead us out of the darkness of sin, and away from the power of what others might think of us. It has the power to transform our own suffering, abandonment, pain, and sadness with hope and the promise of victory. When we stand or kneel before it, we understand the story of Nicodemus.The final image we have of him is that of a man who braved everything with courage to anoint with dignity and respect the body of Christ. For him the cross was no longer a sign of disgrace, but the symbol of victory. The Gospels do not tell us that he was there at Calvary; but then there is no reason to doubt that he was there in the darkness of that hour. Because of his experience before the cross, he is then drawn into the light of the resurrection.
The extravagant gift he brought to the grave reflects his respect and love for Christ revealing what happens when sacrifice and suffering humbly accepted leads one to life and the victory the cross proclaims. There is strength in the cross. Nicodemus found it. There is promise in the cross, and there is joy for those will embrace the cross with courage and faith.