The Light of the World

by Nicole Austin
The place where the tomb stood was dusty and barren. As Nicodemus followed his friend Joseph away from the rock-hewn cave, his mind was full. He barely noticed the pull of the donkey ahead of him, the animal feeling lighter without the load of myrrh and aloe they had carried to prepare the body for burial. He walked without seeing, and his thoughts drifted back to the conversation that continued to haunt him, especially now that the darkness had fallen.

It had been dark that night as well, darker than normal, when he had stolen away to meet with the Teacher who was causing so much strife and angst amongst his fellow Sanhedrin brothers. Nicodemus was well respected on the council, known for his thoughtful consideration of any spiritual dilemma, slow to reach a conclusion and always engaging in dialogue as he had been trained since his adolescence. While the others railed against this Jesus, especially after the scene in the Temple, Nicodemus was silent, and wondered. He had no interest in making trouble, either for himself or for the council, but he had to know more.

The Jesus who greeted him that night was calm, a far cry from the man who had only recently overturned tables and threatened moneychangers. This man felt like Nicodemus's intellectual equal, ready to talk with him and answer his questions, and, until he opened his mouth, safe.
Nicodemus began in the most respectful and political way possible. He wanted this Jesus to know that he was different from the others, that he respected the Teacher's authority and power. He called him Rabbi. He was prepared to be a friend. But then Jesus began to speak of a second birth, and of the Son of God. He questioned Nicodemus's understanding. Most astonishingly, he claimed that the way to eternal salvation was not through studying the Scriptures, or following the ritual laws of Temple sacrifice and cleanliness, but through simple belief. And not just belief in the God of the heavens, as Abraham or Moses had demonstrated, but belief in this Son, this man who had come to earth to save the world.

It was too much. Nicodemus was stunned, and fell silent. The two men sat together, in the cool darkness of the night, and Nicodemus racked his brain to think of what he could say to this man. Didn't he realize how blasphemous this talk was? Didn't he understand how dangerous this claim could be? The leaders of the Temple were already on edge. As with any religious holiday, when Jerusalem swelled with pilgrims coming to worship, the Romans were paying particular attention to make sure that no unrest developed that might lead to revolt. And here was this Jesus stirring the crowds and claiming an authority that was unheard of among the Jewish people. It was only a matter of time before someone would sound the alarm. It would not end well.  But Nicodemus could find no words that would dissuade the man, and he went away troubled and confused.

It was just as he had predicted. Jesus continued to share this message, and during the Feast of Booths he went into the Temple and began to teach. His teaching was so powerful that even the officers sent to arrest him were swayed and they returned to the Sanhedrin without him in custody. The rage on the faces of his fellow Pharisees was palpable, and although Nicodemus had determined to remain as neutral as possible, he could no longer sit idly by.

As was his way, he returned to the legal underpinnings of the council for his argument. "Should we not give this Jesus a hearing? Doesn't our law require that we hear what he has to say before we declare him guilty?" Secretly, he hoped they might bring Jesus in for questioning, if only so he could hear once again the strange things that the Teacher had said to him that night in the darkness. There was something unnerving about the man. His resolute determination, his peace in the face of extreme anger and fear, his kindness towards those who treated him with such disrespect and malice. He was a conundrum, and Nicodemus had been unable to stop thinking about their encounter. He relished the opportunity to hear him again.

But the others were not interested in procedure or measured thinking. They were angry, and afraid, and they would prevail. There would be no other outcome.

And so here he was, only months later, departing the tomb of a crucified man. He had watched in silence as Jesus had been arrested, and questioned, and turned over to the Roman governor Pilate for sentencing. He had stayed in the Temple as others had trailed after the bloodied and beaten man as he dragged the wooden beam that would complete his cross up to the appointed place. But when his friend Joseph had asked to bury the body in his own tomb, Nicodemus suddenly felt compelled to action. He couldn't explain why, as he readied his donkey with nearly 75 pounds of spices meant for the embalming of a corpse, enough for the ritual burial of a king, and led the animal up the path to the forlorn, empty tomb to await Joseph. As he sat there at the entrance, he found himself meditating again on the words Jesus had spoken to him so many months before. "The light has come into the world," he had said. "Whoever does what is true comes to the light."

The light seemed far away now. As Nicodemus sat awaiting the end of the crucifixion and the procession of the body to the tomb, there had been a strange pallor over the land, and the sky felt ominous. All of a sudden, there was a tremor in the earth, and his donkey brayed a thin, sorrowful wail before hanging his head in the dust. Nicodemus had shuddered. Somehow he knew, without knowing, that the thing was done. Suddenly, he remembered what Jesus had said to him, and he drew a sharp breath as tears came unbidden to his eyes. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This Jesus, this Son, was dead, his body beaten, his ministry over. But somehow, in a way that Nicodemus could not explain, his death seemed not like an end, but like the beginning of something new.

Joseph brought the body to the tomb, wrapped in linen, and together with some of his men, they prepared it for burial. Nicodemus and Joseph said the traditional prayers over the corpse, and they laid it in the tomb. Nicodemus watched as Joseph's men heaved the large stone that blocked the tomb's entrance into place, and then they began their slow procession back to the city.  While his donkey was relieved of his burden and walked with a lighter step, Nicodemus felt like he was being pulled through a muddy field. He had no idea where he was going, except that he was walking away from the body of Jesus and towards the unknown. As he trudged along, he peered up at the sky, still heavy with darkness, and waited for the light to return.
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