One of the most intriguing passages in John’s Gospel takes place within a dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who would have been open to the reality of a coming Messiah, but as a member of the Sanhedrin, sought Jesus in the night so as not to be seen. His questions reveal a good-hearted man with an open mind seeking deeper understanding. During the dialogue Jesus said, “You must be born from above… of the Spirit.” (John 3:7-8) This concept was difficult for Nicodemus, who seemed more confused than ever, though such a man must have prayerfully reflected on it for many years. It is likely that he was in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost and so it is also likely that he came to greater insight as to what Jesus meant by being "born from above." While we have the advantage of the compiled Gospels and Acts of the Apostles as well as the teaching of the Church’s scholars and theologians down through the centuries, often it takes persistent, patient reflection to come to greater understanding. Therefore, the passage in which Nicodemus struggles to understand provides an excellent lesson in patiently waiting with a heart and mind open to all the Spirit wants to teach.
Jesus knew that His disciples would not immediately understand some of what He taught, but that once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would have greater clarity. When He appeared to them after the Resurrection, He enabled their understanding when He breathed upon them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” opening their minds. (Luke 24:44-49; John 20:22) However, they still had to wait for Pentecost to receive the fullness of the Spirit in order to be completely empowered with knowledge and spiritual gifts. Thus, it is always a process. St. Paul said it best when he wrote: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully as I am fully known.” (1 Cor.13:12) Therefore, we can look to Nicodemus and the apostles for inspiration in asking sincere questions of God, to be patient in listening, and to trust in the grace of the Holy Spirit who will continue to open our minds and hearts.
When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost the apostles spilled out into the streets, filled with unimaginable joy and love, speaking in multiple languages to the extent that everyone there could not help but see and feel that something incredible was taking place. It was so powerful that 3000 people asked to be baptized. The same palpable spiritual power continued to pour forth from the apostles as they began to preach, heal, and baptize throughout the region: there were healings such as the beggar at the Beautiful Gate, and of many at Solomon’s portico (AA 3:1-10; AA 5:12-16). There were conversions such as Philip with the Ethiopian (AA 8:26-40), and the conversion and baptism of the entire household of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, an event often referred to as the second (or the Gentile) Pentecost. (AA 10:1-49). As Jesus had explained to Nicodemus, they had been born anew, that is, “from above.” (John 3:7) All these passages beg the question as to whether we believe that this still happens or if we think the Holy Spirit has somehow stopped sending these remarkable graces.
Of course, the Holy Spirit has not ceased to act. If we do not see this action, perhaps it is because we need to learn more about Him in order to learn how to recognize His presence and action in our own life. We can begin by reading what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit in the Gospels.* We can also reflect on our experience of the Sacraments. Do we believe, and therefore cultivate an awareness, that grace is present even if it is beyond words to express? Regardless of whether we feel something or not, when we receive a Sacrament something does move deep within our hearts and souls. That is, we have received the very same Holy Spirit as did the apostles in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost. We must remember, it is not that the power of the Holy Spirit has faded, but rather, it is our belief that these things can still happen which has waned. Because we have not been encouraged to do so, we fail to call upon Him as the first disciples did. It is not that the ‘big stuff’ was only for the first century, but rather, it is that we have not been taught to see and to recognize that the Holy Spirit is as active as ever, but is only as active as our cooperation! ** It is important to understand that miracles still do happen: every time there is a conversion or return to the faith, every time we are suffering, in darkness, or simply struggling over a decision and we come to peace, it is the action of the Holy Spirit. Every time the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus, it takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit. These are all miraculous since it is by the power of God and not our power that it is done. And if we invoke the power of the Holy Spirit in our prayer, He is equally present and active. With a heart and mind open to the Holy Spirit we can and will grow in holiness, evangelizing others simply by being witnesses to the powerful love of God.
May we be like Nicodemus, asking sincere questions, listening, and trusting in the grace of the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts! May we pray with the mysteries of Pentecost, seeking an enlivening of the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit! And may we work with the Holy Spirit in our efforts to spread the Kingdom of God! Let us meet in prayer, surrounded by the Holy Spirit! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The main explanations that Jesus made are found in Luke 24:44-49 (after the Resurrection) and during the Last Supper Discourse in John’s Gospel, particularly in John 14:15-17, John 16:12-15; then after the Resurrection, John 20:22. Of course, there is the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22) in which the Holy Spirit descended, as well as the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) when again the Holy Spirit descends; thus in both events, the entire Trinity was manifested. (After the Resurrection in Matthew 28:16-20, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a key understanding.)
** Remember that God respects our freedom and never forces Himself or His graces upon us.
1. Painting, Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème (Interview Between Jesus and Nicodemus), by James Tissot (1886-94). Original in the Brooklyn Museum, NY.
2. My photo taken off the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine.
3. Painting, Envía tu Espíritu Señor y Renueva la Paz de la Tierra (Send Your Spirit Lord and Renew Peace on Earth), Chilean
4. Painting, Bluebell Wood by Nicholas Hely Huntchinson.
5. Icon, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you would like to purchase a copy in one of a variety of mediums go to fineartamerica.com/featured/the-blessed-virgin-mary-mother-of-the-church-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart