Like Advent, Lent has a “Rejoice or Rose Sunday” when the rose vestments are worn and the altar could be decorated with flowers in joyful anticipation of Easter. In Advent it is called Gaudete Sunday; in Lent we call the Rose Sunday, Laetare Sunday, taken from the first word of the antiphon at the Introit: “Laetare, Jerusalem, et conventum facite...” (Rejoice Jerusalem, and all who love her—Isaiah 66:10). The rejoice theme ties aptly with the theme of today’s gospel which announces the depth of God’s love that made Him send His only begotten Son as expiation for our sin. It took the night visit of Nicodemus for Jesus to make this explicit declaration about the Father’s love affair with humanity.
Why did Nicodemus choose the nighttime to visit the Lord? A simplistic interpretation would be: To avoid his fellow Pharisees noticing that he was hanging out with their avowed enemy. However, St. John’s frequent use of the imagery of light and darkness to signify truth and error, love and hate, grace and sin suggests a deeper motif. Recall that the first chapter of St. John’s gospel speaks of light overcoming darkness. A more apt use of this imagery is at the Last Supper. After Judas had partaken of the bread, he left the room. St. John reports: “And it was night” (John 13:30). That Nicodemus found audience with the Lord at night could suggest he worked out an opportune time to be with the Lord. Spiritual masters encourage us to have an appropriate time of prayer when we can be alone with the Lord. But in addition, we can draw from the nighttime visit of Nicodemus a symbolism of baptism, which the Fathers of the Church described as a stepping out from the darkness of sin, ignorance, and the grave to an encounter with Christ, the Light that enlightens all men. Here, Nicodemus was emerging from his darkness to encounter Christ, the Light, whose light overcomes his night.
It is significant that John places this meeting shortly after last Sunday’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple. Thus Jesus challenges Nicodemus to emerge from the darkness epitomized in the empty rituals and casuistry of the Sanhedrin of Israel and welcome the light of God’s love and presence manifested in Himself. Nicodemus made the first leap as the Pharisees groused about arresting Jesus. He reminded them that their plan to pass judgment without evidence of wrongdoing goes contrary to the very law which they claim to zealously safeguard (John 7:51). And at Jesus’s burial, he went overboard bringing enormous amount of balm (75 pounds of spices)—a mixture of myrrh and aloes—which according to Pope Benedict XVI, far exceeded all normal proportions, even for royal burials (John 19:39). Generous faith, like that of Nicodemus, can rouse our search for Jesus this Lent and evoke in us grace as fragrant as costly aloes for the purification of the dead weight of sin, blindness and ignorance in which modern society is entrenched.
The first reading illustrates this entrenchment: “All the heads of priesthood and the people too, added infidelity to infidelity, copying the shameful practices of the nations and defiling the temple that the Lord has consecrated for Himself” (2 Chronicles 36:14). As modern man appears stranded in a desert of spiritual emptiness, Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to look up to Him—who is the Love of God—mounted on the cross as the antidote to our poisonous age. Rabbi Chukath noted three dangers to which a person stranded in the wilderness is exposed: 1) attack by vicious animals—serpents, seraph snakes and scorpions; 2) shortage of water; and 3) lack of food. In Jesus, divine love wards off these threats when a person embraces the Cross, which detoxifies from the bite of sin; receives the Living Water, which wells up to eternal life (Jn 4:14); and feeds upon the Bread of Life, which is our pledge of Eternal Life (Jn 6:35). St. Paul calls this the action of grace by which we have been saved through faith (Eph 2:8). It’s not by our own effort—so no one may boast—but by the love of God. Daily we cooperate with grace, not necessarily through heroic deeds, but as we do small things, like our Lenten fasts and almsgiving, in heroic ways.