by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, March 16, 2014:
First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm: Psalm 121
Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Gospel: John 3:1-17
It's always interesting to come across a familiar verse in context. John 3:16 is one of those verses that many people can quote. And yet, we're at the end of centuries of disagreement about what it means. Does it mean that Jesus had to be crucified as a sacrifice for our sins, as many Christians will tell you? Does it mean that Jesus came to show us a different way of life, thus saving us, as many people uncomfortable with a sacrificial Jesus would have us believe? Does it mean that Jesus is the only way to the Divine? What about people who will never hear about Jesus? Will they go to Hell when they die?
John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and not surprisingly, Jesus acts as a mystic in this episode with Nicodemus. He's studying the Torah at night; first century Jews would recognize night as the time for serious study of the Torah. He asks Jesus serious questions, as a scholar would, and Jesus seems to give him nonsense answers about being born again.
Read what Jesus says again, and imagine how frustrating it must have been for Nicodemus. It's frustrating for me, and I come from a tradition with centuries of explanation. Jesus seems to be offering mystical babble here. I'm with Nicodemus: how is this possible?
These are the passages that I hate discussing with the confused and the non-believers. I'm a poet and an English major, so I don't have as much trouble getting my head around sacraments as more literal-minded folks do--but explaining it? That's a different matter.
Maybe we don't have to explain. I take part in all sorts of mysteries that I can't explain. I don't understand internal combustion engines, but I drive my car anyway, and I have faith that it will work. I can't explain how electricity is generated or how it powers all the things that make my life easy, but that doesn't stop me from turning on the lights when it's dark.
Advent and Lent are two times of the liturgical year when I am most conscious that I'm participating in a mystery--and therefore, I can't explain everything, especially not to the satisfaction of non-believers. I can't even explain it to me. As Jesus says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit."
I have faith in being born again, although I might define that differently than my fundamentalist friends. Each day presents a new opportunity, a new birth, a new chance to re-align myself towards God. Indeed, each hour gives me that chance. Each day, God wants to come be with me, and each day, I get to decide whether or not that will happen. Even if I go through a period of not living as mindfully as I'd like, I can start again, whenever I choose. And these liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent remind us of the need to turn and return to God.