At the present time we, in Britain, are living under conditions popularly described as ‘lockdown’. We are all experiencing this as a result of government measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus and at the time of writing, sadly the death rate from this infection is continuing to rise. We all have concerns for the future and long for the resumption of normality. I believe the prime minister will end all the present restrictions as soon as this threat to human lives recedes. In the meantime, let our thoughts and prayers be for the sick, the bereaved and for others who are finding this a time of stress and difficulty.
Whatever is happening out there in the world, we should also try to find time to turn our hearts and minds to matters spiritual, to put things in perspective and to try to see things as they really are. After a long winter, these past few days have brought blue skies and glorious sunshine, the mornings are lighter and the days are warmer and soon it will be Easter.
In the meantime, let us remember that we are still in Lent. We are still in that period that begins with John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, who ‘preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ John said that he baptised with water but that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. John baptised Jesus and as Jesus came out of the water the Holy Spirit descended upon him ‘like a dove.’ Thus, Jesus was able to say in the synagogue at Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
In this time of Lent, once again, we are brought face to face, with the challenges and suffering that Jesus met. The meaning of Lent may be summed up in his words:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
When Jesus came from Galilee to the River Jordan to John, to be baptised, John presumed that Jesus had no need to be baptised. In fact, John felt that it was more proper that he should be baptised by Jesus. But Jesus insisted that John should baptise him, saying that this was to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ and so John did as he was asked.
Humility demands that we must abandon our own sense of self as Jesus did before John at the River Jordan. We have to leave our own egos at the door in order to ‘fulfil all righteousness.’ Humility is a virtue of the Christian faith it is exemplified in John the Baptist, a great spiritual leader with his own following and disciples, who publicly confessed that he was not good enough to untie the sandals of Jesus.
Jesus said, ‘I and the Father are one’. He also said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’. In these words of Jesus, we are shown that the object of the spiritual life is to achieve unity with God. There are no perfect people on this planet but in moments of surrender we may get a sense of the presence of God; the kingdom of heaven within. In the presence of God there is perfection. Of this quest to transform our lives, Thomas Merton wrote:
We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves."
In the Gospel of John, we have the story of Nicodemus a Pharisee not an ordinary man but an educated man, a Pharisee, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus was perturbed and confused by the presence and the godly power of Jesus. So perturbed and confused was he that he came to visit Jesus at night; secretly. Perhaps he didn’t want to damage his reputation in the world by being seen with Jesus. Now Nicodemus was not just an educated man, he was a teacher. He was a man of such great standing that Jesus referred to him as the teacher of Israel. It would almost be an understatement to say that Nicodemus knew the scriptures inside out. Yet Nicodemus must have felt that somehow, he was missing something, for in Jesus was a man who could preach like no other man. In Jesus something of God was revealed. Nicodemus was a man of great learning but Jesus showed that there was something more:
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ But Nicodemus could not understand and so he said to Jesus
How can someone be born when they are old? Nicodemus asked. Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Faith is an affair of the heart for there is no academic learning that will give us that peace which passes all understanding. It is only in contrition, humility and love that we may be truly born again. As Easter approaches with its story of the death and the resurrection, we will be reminded, once again, that love conquers death. And so, we too must learn to die to ourselves as Jesus taught:
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.