The greatest tragedy for any of us is to fail to live the life we came here for. The greatest sadness is to behold in someone an unlived life. The unlived life is a cramped and circumscribed life – a life of painting by numbers. A life in which there abound opportunities not taken; doors that opened but that were not walked through; invitations declined; chances and risks avoided.
In such a life we become obsessed with second guessing ourselves. We become bogged down with circular questions designed to distract us from our central aim of procrastinating. We assiduously avoid decisions. Show us the blueprint first, we demand, then we’ll know what to do.
Looking back on my life I can see long plateaux – level sailing often propelled by a sense of due caution and risk aversion. Then it’s as if the screen on the oscilloscope measuring the energy of my life lurches into a jagged vertical pattern as the pieces of my life – like a shaken-up snow globe – are thrown up into the air before landing – reconfigured into new patterns of living.
In his poem Morning Offering John O’ Donohue writes:
May my mind come alive today to the invisible geography that invites me to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed.
Nicodemus had such a longing. He spies Jesus from a distance and is drawn to him because Jesus has awoken in him a deep longing. But he is afraid of his longing being discovered. So, he comes to Jesus by night – concealed by the darkness. Nicodemus’ fear is a fear of being discovered to be a follower of this compelling and disturbing young Rabbi in whom he discerns the presence of God.
Coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness is also a metaphor for concealed longing. As a respectable Pharisee, Nicodemus’ anxiety runs deeper than his surface concerns about being outed as a Jesus follower. At a deeper level he is compelled by an internal longing.
Operating as metaphor, the covering of darkness represents Nicodemus’ desire to conceal the true nature of his longing from himself. He knows intuitively, that to consciously face his unconscious desires will result in his life being vigorously shaken up with unpredictable consequences. He longs to break free of the dead shell of yesterdays (O’Donohue), yet he is afraid to risk being disturbed and changed.
Isn’t this the truth for many of us – griped with a longing for something more to life we simultaneously fear and resist with every fiber of our being taking the risks that will lead to our being disturbed and changed.
We move with tentative caution into the season of Lent. Lent brings us face to face with our unacknowledged longing to be more than we are, to experience relationship with God more intensely -with a greater satisfaction than we have experienced to date. Lent confronts us with our largely unacknowledged longings. We barely have the words – the language – to breathe our longing into a second birth.
Our past experience is littered with the disappointments and failures of past Lents. We’ve set out before with great hope and resolve only to fall at the first hurdle. Or we may have with gritted teeth tenaciously slogged through our Lenten discipline only to find the shear effort has robbed us of joy and fulfillment other than being able to tick the box of supposed success in achieving what we set out to do. Those of us who have been around the Lent track many times will approach Lent these days with strictly controlled expectations designed to mitigate disappointment by not setting the bar too high.
Nicodemus is the figure for us all. We long to live with a greater sense of being alive and yet are afraid to take the risks required. We fear risks to our reputation; being associated too intensely with Jesus is the kiss of death in our polite society. We avoid consciously registering our unconscious longing to be set free from the ghosts of our past. And yet, do we not long to process the energy of our unconscious longings into Bread for the hunger no one sees.
Jesus asks Nicodemus to be born again, i.e. to submit to being remade in the form of his original creation – the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into the new life of God’s kingdom here and now.
Nicodemus, despite his longing resists – compelling Jesus to forcefully exclaim,
“You’re not listening. Let me say it again. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the divine breath—filling them with a living spirit.From the Message translation
May we have the courage this Lent:
to live the life that we would love, and to postpone our dream no longer, but do at last what we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more.John O’Donohue