In the ‘Shelter’ of Darkness
As many of us know, the images of light and darkness are central to the Gospel of John. Hence it is no accident that the Gospel writer plays off the darkness of the night in this narrative. It is not in the light of day that Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, comes to see Jesus. He comes by night when the shadows and darkness of the evening serve to conceal his presence, his intrigue and his conversation.
I suspect many of us can relate to Nicodemus if we are honest with ourselves. He was a respected leader of the Sanhedrin. He knew and studied the law. He was a committed follower of God’s law. And when we meet him, he is clearly aware that Jesus is from God. He acknowledges that no one could do what Jesus has done apart from God. There is something stirring within Nicodemus; something powerful that made him come out to visit Jesus. He alludes to the miracles – the “signs” – Jesus had performed; he affirms his role as a teacher – calling Jesus “rabbi”. It is clear that the Jesus before him has compelled Nicodemus to pursue a conversation – but he was unprepared or unwilling to have that conversation, that encounter, in the light of day. He chose to have it in the darkness and shadows of night.
While the darkness of the night can be threatening, there is also another dimension to darkness – one we do not speak of as often. The darkness of the night can also provide us with shelter – a shelter from the ears and eyes of others who might disagree with us. The darkness of the night serves as a cloak of sorts, whereby others are unable to see our actions, thereby avoiding judgment. In some ways, the night can serve as a kind of ‘invisibility cloak’ not unlike the one used by the hero in the Harry Potter series. We can move, speak and act and not have to openly claim our words, emotions and actions.
I have found that the human temptation and desire to journey into the darkness of the night is often motivated by fear. Fear is often the reason we choose to cloak ourselves in the shadows. Perhaps fear is the motive that kept Nicodemus from speaking openly with Jesus in the light of day. Perhaps he feared that publicly engaging this Jesus would go against the understanding, comfort and status of what he had believed. Perhaps he feared that following this Jesus could cause him to lose a way of life as he had known it. After all, not all his friends, colleagues, co-leaders agreed with him. What would be his end if they knew? Whatever his motives, thoughts and emotions were, we will never know for certain. What we do know is that Nicodemus slips out of and into the darkness before and after his conversation with Jesus, leaving us wondering.
But the darkness did not have the final say. In spite of this unclear and perplexing initial encounter; we later learn in the Gospel of John that Nicodemus defends Jesus before the Council. He speaks up before the religious leadership of his time. And again at another critical moment, he along with Joseph of Arimathea, administered the last rites to Jesus’ body before his burial. There was no hiding in the shadows of darkness in these two final acts of his encounter with and on behalf of Jesus. Nicodemus steps into the light – publicly claiming his heart. The darkness could not stop the love of Jesus from breaking into his life. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This journey of Nicodemus offers me and us a humble hope, especially as I acknowledge those moments when I too have been tempted to live out the claims and values of my faith in darkness; moments when I have allowed fear to shape my decisions and actions. They are those moments when the darkness offers me a false sense of shelter. This journey of Nicodemus serves to encourage each of us that God’s light will ultimately have the last word.
As we continue our Lenten journey together, I invite you to reflect on those places where you are tempted to be a person of faith in the shelter of the darkness. Name them, claim them – allow God’s light to break in.
there is so much darkness in my life
and I hide from you.
Take my hand
and lead me out of the shadows of my fear.
Help me to change my heart.
Bring me to your truth
and help me to respond to your generous love.
Let me recognize the fullness of your love
which will fill my life.
Free me from the darkness in my heart.