Nicodemus’ journey: from night to day

Nicodemus (detail from Van der Weyden's Deposition)The final essay in James Alison’s Faith Beyond Resentment (see previous posts 1 | 2) is the provocatively-titled “Nicodemus and the boys in the square”.  One section of this features an characteristically insightful look at Nicodemus’ interactions with Jesus and with his fellow Pharisees.

As Alison points out, Nicodemus is in some respects a marginal figure: he appears only three times in the New Testament, and “scarcely says anything at all”. Yet what we are told of him reveals a “huge and hidden transformation of heart”.

1. Nicodemus by night

We first encounter Nicodemus in John 3, where he comes to Jesus during the night. As Alison observes:

He is “a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews”, and does not want to be seen to be consorting with Jesus by day, for that would get him into trouble with his brethren. Or maybe his brethren are happy for him to go to Jesus at night, they simply don’t want “the people” to know about it, lest they be given an ambiguous message.

However, Jesus “does not pander to Nicodemus coming to him by night”:

He knows that to have desires by night which are in contradiction with the desires of the day are signs that both are distorted. He gives it to Nicodemus straight: there is no such thing as a a closet disciple.

Being a disciple, born of the Spirit, involves a “radical rupture” with the previous life in the flesh. What’s more, this is not something which Jesus has invented: the distinction “between the flesh and the Spirit, the religious world of the authorities and the true cult of Yahweh” has always been available, as Nicodemus should have realised. Hence Jesus’ question:

You are a teacher of Israel, and this you do not know?

Beyond this, however, Jesus ceases to address Nicodemus as a singular individual, but with a plural “you”, as a member of the group of Pharisees to which Nicodemus had referred already as “we”:

Thus it is his daytime persona whom Jesus is addressing, not his night-time one, even though his night-time persona looks to us like the better of the two. Yet it is who Nicodemus is happy to be by day that determines who he is, not his tentative sortie from that security into a risky night-time visit, where he may feel that he is being much more honest, much more himself. And it is by day that he will have to face the challenge of deciding whether he believes in the Son of Man.

This is why Jesus (“after having delivered himself of the most famous verse of the New Testament”) talks about light and darkness in verses 17-21: this is not merely an abstract discussion; Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he needs to recognise “the absolute incompatibility between his daytime practice and belonging, and his night-time confession”, and to move out into the light of day, showing that he truly believes what he has confessed in secret.

2. Nicodemus by day

We next encounter Nicodemus in John 7, where he is making his first tentative steps out into the daylight. The Pharisees are furious with the temple guard for having failed to arrest Jesus. They issue angry anathemas on those who dare to believe in Jesus:

Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law – they are accursed.

It is with considerable courage that Nicodemus “dares to break the angry unanimity which can only anathematise those with whom it disagrees”: not by openly supporting Jesus, but by raising a “legal, procedural question to defer the violence”:

Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?

But as Alison observes, “the Pharisees are not fooled”:

Due process is unimportant when the truth is already known. Anyone who speaks up on behalf such a person is probably “one of them”:

They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee”.

In other words: only “one of them” could take him seriously, and the unanimous voice of Scripture is against the possibility that “one of them” could tell the truth.

Nevertheless, Nicodemus’ courage is not in vain: the drive to violence is (for now) abated, and “they went each to his own house”. Nicodemus had “lived to tell the tale”. However, the incident had shown him the impossibility of a half-hearted witness to the truth:

The Pharisees had instantly detected what his failure to join their unanimity said about him, had seen that it gave him away. The closet is a place in which you are safe neither by night, nor by day. By night you face the threat of coming clean and thus losing your daytime belonging; by day you face the threat of being found out, and thus expelled.

Which is the more frightening, to take your chances with the living God, or to see whether you can negotiate survival in the midst of violent men?

3. Nicodemus in the full light of evening

The final time we see Nicodemus, night is falling – but he has stepped into the full light of day, as he turns up to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (John 19:38-42); and at a time when this would have made him ritually unclean. As Alison writes:

So Nicodemus, no doubt prepared by his own near brush with a lynching, had not been swept away by the unanimity against Jesus, but had found himself able to honour one who, in all scriptural rigour, had died under what he should have regarded as God’s curse. … [T]he richness of his tribute bespeaks a genuine freedom of conscience, a having broken out of the world of “flesh” and an emerging into the world of Spirit.

So, what was going on?

It will probably not have escaped your attention that the language that Alison (himself a gay Christian) uses to describe Nicodemus’ journey is full of references to the “closet”, to “coming out” and so on. Alison emphasises that he is not suggesting that Nicodemus was gay. However, as he notes in another essay, the metaphor of “coming out of the closet” has become mainstream, with applications in many areas – including, perhaps, the areas of silence I was talking about in a previous post.

Equally, though, Nicodemus’ conversion was neither a case of his being “swept by volatile emotion”, nor of simply abandoning his former position, the teachings that he had inherited and which he was committed to preserving. Rather, Alison suggests that Nicodemus may have been working out in his head (and acting out in his life) the full implications of Jesus’ question: “You are a teacher of Israel, and this you do not know?”:

In other words, he had started to reread his religious tradition in order to try and distinguish between what in it was of the “flesh” and what of the Spirit.

Thus he went through a “self-critical process of learning to find himself to have been wrong about a whole number of presuppositions and teachings which he had regarded as sacred”. However, in doing so he was not breaking with his tradition. So in John 7:

He was using the Law to defer violence, against a reading of the Law which seemed to be demanding it. In this he was engaging with that most noble of Jewish practical interpretations: reading the Law against sacrifice, making the Law point to Spirit rather than allowing it to become the instrument of the flesh.

But this was no mere intellectual exercise:

He was also being faced with the existential task of working out for himself where he stood in relation to the socially constructed world of goodness and badness of which he was a part, and acting accordingly. … It involved either deciding that there was no further work of interpretation to be done, and going along with the pharisaic maintenance of good and evil, the world of those who knew the Law, and those who did not and were “accursed” (John 7:49). Or it involved taking steps to put into practice the undoing of that world, whatever the consequences. And, it was this, however tentatively, that he began to do.

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5 Responses to Nicodemus’ journey: from night to day

  1. Matt J. says:

    Thanks for the wonderfully concise summary of this essay. I’ve been reading another of Alison’s books all week and have had trouble following the thinking from beginning to end more than once.

    I sure appreciate a conversion story that doesn’t involve getting struck by lighting. It’s more in line with a lot of our own experiences I think.

  2. John H says:

    Matt: one reason I blog Alison so much is it’s a way to think through what he’s saying! Which book are you reading?

  3. Matt J. says:

    “On Being Liked” this time. Essays like “Unpicking Atonement’s Knots” are really well organized (and guaranteed to make reformed folks flip out). But the next steps, like his following essay on creation is just so abstract I can’t figure out what to do with it. I thought it was because I read it late at night, so I tried again the next day. No dice. I suspect some of it has to do with his regular references to Aquinas, which I do not have a handle on.

  4. John H says:

    I ordered that one off Amazon yesterday, though it’ll be a week or so before I can read it. He is “difficult” on creation: there’s an essay in Faith Beyond Resentment which is similarly head-scratchy on the subject.

    Also, at times his argumentation is based on saying the Council of Trent should override more recent curial pronouncements. I can often see what he’s driving at (and it’s helping me learn a more nuanced view of Trent, which I’ve previously only seen through the lenses of Reformed/Lutheran polemics), but still hard to shake off the sense I don’t have a dog in that fight. He’s at his best when engaging with Scripture.

  5. frank sonnek says:

    Someone who is an Alcoholics Anonymous veteran informed me they have a saying: “you are only as sick as your secrets”.

    What father Alison is saying is a gem that can be looked at from alot of different angles it is occuring to me.

    When I read St James exhortation and promise “confess your sins to one another and you will be healed”, I think exactly of what Alison is describing about Nicodemus: squaring our private selves with our public selves. I don´t read St James to be talking so much about sin as about trusting the Truth by telling the truth. This gem can be turned again ever so slightly and it becomes the topic of honesty and how to become more honest.

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