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John 3:16 and the journey from darkness to light

On the Readings for March 14, 2021, the Fourth Sunday of Lent

"Christ talking with Nicodemus at night" (early 1600s) by Crijn Hendricksz [Wikipedia]

2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23
Ps 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Eph 2:4-10
Jn 3:14-21

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it about the same number of times.

“It” is John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” I first memorized it at the age of four, reciting it before a small Fundamentalist congregation.

That verse, from today’s Gospel reading, is a beautiful summary, from the lips of the Savior, of the heart of salvation. As Benedict XVI stated in the opening of his encyclical on love, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” And that is an apt description of the season of Lent: a transforming encounter with a person, the Son of God, who gives us life, direction, purpose.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sought out an encounter with Jesus. He came at night, fearful of being seen with Jesus The nighttime, in John’s Gospel, symbolizes the spiritual darkness in which man lives apart from God, a theme introduced in the opening verses of John’s Gospel (Jn 1:4-5). This ruler of the Jews realized his need for spiritual light, readily confessing his belief that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God.” Surely he must have been 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.”

A decisive direction was presented to Nicodemus. Yet the Apostle John does not describe what reaction Nicodemus had to the words of Jesus; the secretive visitor seems to have silently disappeared back into the night. Perhaps St. John did not immediately reveal Nicodemus’s choice because Nicodemus, in a certain way, is each of us. We have met Jesus, we have sat at his feet, and we have heard his words. What will we do?

This is one of so many brilliant qualities of the Fourth Gospel, which is a literary and spiritual icon offering a window into the mystery of Christ—and into the mystery of our own hearts. We can relate to Nicodemus, just as we can understand the joy of the woman at the well (Jn 4), the hunger of the crowds who followed Jesus (Jn 6), and the fear and anguish of Peter, who betrayed Jesus after the arrest in the garden (Jn 18). “Nicodemus,” wrote Monsignor Romano Guardini in his classic work, The Lord, “has been shaken by Jesus’ mysterious power; his wonderful teaching has struck home.” But, just like the woman at the well, the crowds, and Peter, there was at first bewilderment and confusion. He no longer wanted to be in the darkness, but he was not ready to step fully into the light. He would stay in the shadows for a while longer, pondering the person and words of Jesus.

But eventually Nicodemus did, cautiously, step forward a bit, coming to Jesus’ defense before his fellow Pharisees (Jn 7:50-52). But his appeal for fairness was met with suspicious anger. Perhaps he pondered again these words: “whoever lives the truth comes to the light…”

We meet Nicodemus again, after the Crucifixion. Pilate had given Joseph of Arimathea permission to remove and bury Christ’s body, and Nicodemus, “the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds” (Jn 19:39). He was finally in the light completely, revealing himself as a disciple of the Son of Man who had been lifted up “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Lent is a time to come into the light and to embrace the gift of eternal life. That’s worth hearing about a thousand times. Or more.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 22, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. Your advantage was, being a Midwesterner?, Fundamentalist Protestant. We deprived [victimhood is trending] in Brooklyn hadn’t that familiarity with the riches of sacred scripture. Mass was in speedily recited Latin, incomprehensible. Knowledge was morals taught by nuns. However, God provides for the impoverished. Around 2006 on a mission visit to a Maasai village I asked a warrior what the blackened substance was piled near Acacia trees. He said they were preparing the Acacia gum to make incense for income. 100 lbs of myrrh and aloes likely cost Nicodemus a small fortune. Whatever Crucifixion meant for him Christ was worth it. And the women although their faith shaken sought to anoint his body with fragrant balms. Joseph was sold into slavery to Arabs en route to Egypt to sell their Acacia incense. Virtual death real death, incense, myrrh both used extensively in the best of Catholic liturgy. Myrrh added to olive oil blessed at Chrism Mass Holy Week fragrant sign of the Holy Spirit. After the bishop blesses the Chrism it’s incensed, the sign of the divinity fragrance of both wafting into the congregation. Mourning and death, love and hope brought to vivid light at the Resurrection.

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