Prayer of the Day: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’” John 3:3-4.
It is probably a good thing none of us can recall the experience of birth. I cannot imagine the terror of being thrust out of the warm, dark and safe environment of the womb into a cold world saturated with piercing light, thunderous noise and monstrous images. It’s all raw experience with no context and no meaning. If we were cursed with the ability to remember this jaring experience at the beginning of our lives, we would probably be spending the rest of them in therapy trying to recover!
For this reason, I don’t think Nicodemus was simply being dense when he asked Jesus how it was possible to be “born anew” or “born from above.” Who would even want that? How is it possible for us to unknow everything we think we know, let go of everything we believe to be true and start life all over again as new born babies needing to be re-taught, re-instructed and re-educated? Or, in the words of Nicodemus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
As impossible as it might seem, rebirth is required before anyone can see the kingdom of God. But unlike our original birth, in which we come instantly into this world with no prior experience, birth from above is a long slow process into which we enter with a lot of baggage. It takes time to unlearn the prejudicial stereotypes that have been bred into us without our even being conscious of them. It takes time for those of us who have benefited from systemic racism and patriarchy to gain an understanding of our complicity in oppression and be led out of this “bondage to sin from which we cannot free ourselves.” For those of us disciples who live in the United States, we struggle to disentangle our identity as Americans from our identity as followers of Jesus. We need this rebirth because the kingdom of God is not someplace at the other end of the universe or situated in the distant future. The kingdom of God is a present reality. As Jesus said in Luke’s gospel, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed…for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Luke 17:20-21. But we need a brand new set of eyes if we are to see it.
What is it like to be “born from above”? It might be like my seeing for the first time the interior of a Greek Orthodox basilica and recognizing icons I had seen before in museums, coffee table books and theological texts for decades. But the experience of seeing them within their context, within a worship space where together they testified to the biblical vision of life, a life emanating from Jesus Christ at the pinnacle and passing through Mary and the apostles beneath him manifesting itself in the biblical saga portrayed on the surrounding walls and pouring itself out into the hearts and minds of those gathered for worship-that’s a different thing entirely. Now these icons were no longer dead works of art from the distant past. They were living testaments giving light, hope and strength to worshiping members of a vibrant faith community. Let’s just say I recognized these icons for the first times as windows into the mystery of God.
Or it might be like the experience of astronaut Frederick Hauck who, when asked what it was like to be in outer space, responded that it was like the terror, exhilaration and excitement of being a kid again riding your bicycle for the first time without training wheels. See full story on the Moth Radio Hour-Portland, Maine. It is like seeing the world from space, seeing the smallness and vulnerability of our planet and recognizing that our survival and wellbeing are dependent on our willingness and ability to work together for the common good.
Or perhaps birth from above is seeing our country for the first time through the eyes of people of color as they tell their stories of systemic discrimination, exclusion and police violence. Being “born of the Spirit,” like being “born of the flesh,” thrusts one into unprecedented experiences that can be highly disorienting. It is rather like having someone switch on a light after you have been sitting for hours in a dark room. Your natural inclination is to close your eyes and shut out the flood of sensations bombarding you. Perhaps that is one reason Nicodemus sought Jesus out by night. It may well be that he was more than a little afraid of what he was seeking-as well he should be. It is a terrible and wonderful thing to be born from above! Terrible because it requires a radical reorientation of everything. Wonderful because it is the one and only way of entering into life.
Here is a poem by Edward Hirsch that might just capture in some small part what it is like to be “born from above.”
The Widening Sky
I am so small walking on the beach
at night under the widening sky.
The wet sand quickens beneath my feet
and the waves thunder against the shore.
I am moving away from the boardwalk
with its colorful streamers of people
and the hotels with their blinking lights.
The wind sighs for hundreds of miles.
I am disappearing so far into the dark
I have vanished from sight.
I am a tiny seashell
that has secretly drifted ashore
and carries the sound of the ocean
surging through its body.
I am so small now no one can see me.
How can I be filled with such a vast love?
Source: Lay Back the Darkness (c. 2003 by Edward Hirsch, pub. by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Edward Hirsch (b. 1950) is an American poet and critic. He is the author of the national bestseller, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), a book about reading and appreciating poetry. He has also published nine books of his own poems as well as five other prose books about poetry. Hirsch has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1997. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York City. You can read more about Edward Hirsch and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.