Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He approaches, respectfully questioning; discreetly curious. Nicodemus’ final part in the conversation is astonishment and uncertainty: “How can these things be?”
The question asked in the dark of night lingers while the fourth gospel’s narrative moves on to the woman at the well. For critical-minded readers, Nicodemus may be seen as simply a foil to the woman: he, a respected Jewish leader, comes to Jesus in the middle of the night and doesn’t quite grasp the message; she, a shunned Samaritan woman, meets Jesus at noon and becomes the first evangelist in this gospel.
But maybe there’s more to Nicodemus than typological narrative figure.
Certainly, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are contrasted. But while the woman’s example is perhaps the one the narrator wishes readers to emulate, Nicodemus isn’t portrayed as a villain. He recognizes something in Jesus that compels him to ask questions, even if he does so at night rather than in daylight. He calls Jesus “Rabbi” — even if Nicodemus is not, in the end, the stereotypical star student.
And Nicodemus shows up again, twice.
He shows up again first in John 7, as part of the group of chief priests and Pharisees. Most of these Jewish leaders, the narrator notes, are intent on having Jesus arrested — and get angry when the police refuse to act accordingly. They shout at the police who have left Jesus free: “Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”
Nicodemus is a Pharisee who has not “believed in” Jesus. But still he speaks out, the lone dissenter: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The others brush off his question; Nicodemus falls silent into the narrative background.
But several chapters later: the crucifixion. After the bustle of the trial and the drama of the passion, Nicodemus appears one final time. Jesus’ body is given to Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple who wishes to give his leader a proper burial. The narrative adds, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” Unlike Joseph, Nicodemus is never described as a disciple — instead, as one “who had come to Jesus by night.” He and Joseph respectfully bury Jesus according to proper Jewish custom. And then Nicodemus disappears from scripture.
Tradition has sainted Nicodemus. And this unlikely saint’s hagiography suggests that he was indeed a disciple, that he eventually died a martyr. But I’m struck that the scriptural record of Saint Nicodemus nowhere indicates discipleship — only respect and questions, concern and uncertainty.
And, on this Good Friday, I wonder how to meditate on Nicodemus’ role in holy week. Unlike so many others, he is not involved in the crucifixion. But neither is he among the disciples who witness the resurrection. As simply a pallbearer, he honors and interacts with the strangest of theological phenomena: a dead Messiah, divinity scandalously experiencing death.
Nicodemus buries Jesus, and then is gone, only to be strangely sainted centuries later.
Perhaps Nicodemus is the patron saint of questioning, of lifelong uncertainty. Perhaps Nicodemus is the patron saint of Holy Saturday: of living in a strange world where the Messiah is dead and resurrection seems improbable.
We all live in that world, truly. Always.
And perhaps the tradition of Nicodemus tells us that there’s a place in the communion of saints for those who ask questions in the dark, for those who respectfully bury Jesus and can’t see ahead toward resurrection. Perhaps.