Today’s readings open with a description of sin and the worship of false gods and conclude with Jesus’ words, “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” The contrast between the extremes of darkness and light, idolatry and faithfulness, pride and humility, is a reminder of the possibilities faced by every person: separation from God or sharing in the very life of God.
Such starkness is not very popular in the current age, which is marked by a constant outpouring of both sophistry and distraction. The sophistry seeks to justify evils by denying the reality of objective truth and transcendent goodness; the distractions are many and varied, distorting reality and truth in word and image.
Chronicles presents a history of the Davidic Kingdom (established around 1010 B.C.) rooted in a rich theological understanding of worship, the Temple, and the role of the kings, especially David and Solomon. There was constant conflict within Israel over the worship of gods, a conflict that David resolved for a while through his steadfast loyalty to God and his desire to build the Temple in Jerusalem. But David’s son, Solomon, after beginning strongly as a king, eventually succumbed to the worship of false gods, and most of the subsequent rulers did the same.
God sent messengers and prophets, but they were ignored, and the Temple was finally destroyed and the people taken into exile and slavery in Babylon.
But, 70 years later, hope arrived in an unusual form: Cyrus, the king of Persia, acknowledged the true God and allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem to build a new Temple. By the time of Jesus, the Temple had been rebuilt, but there was, once again, corruption within its walls. Darkness had been falling for quite some time upon the chosen people, and once again God sent a messenger. That messenger, the Son, was the “true light, which enlightens everyone ...” (Jn 1:9).
Not everyone was attracted to the light, and Jesus was under suspicion from the start of his ministry, which is one reason the Pharisee, Nicodemus, came at night to see Jesus. In John’s Gospel, the night often symbolizes the spiritual darkness in which man dwells apart from God (Jn 1:4-5). But Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews” (Jn 3:1), realized his need for spiritual light and confessed his belief that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God” (Jn 3:2). He must have been deeply challenged by Jesus’ declaration that “whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
The challenge to know, love and worship God had been a constant struggle for the Jewish people. So how did Nicodemus respond to it? The answer is not given right away, for Nicodemus seems to have simply faded into the night; there is a sense in which each reader is placed before Jesus in quiet darkness, hearing the same astounding words: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Later, after the Crucifixion, we see Nicodemus again, “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about 100 pounds” for the burial (Jn 19:39). He had stepped out into the light, having accepted faithfulness and goodness, embracing the one who is the way, the truth, and the life (cf. Jn 14:6).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.