His wife was worried that his mind
Would sink beneath the waves behind
The battered boat of work and wealth
That used to float with pride and health
Upon the sea of human praise
Where Nicodemus spent his days
Before the wedding of his son.
That night something had come undone,
She used to say, when people raised
A question why the old man gazed
So blankly in the months between
The wedding and the shocking scene
Before the stunned Sanhedrin in
Jerusalem. Some days his thin,
Gaunt face would simply stare between
The artful piles of brown and green
And yellow spices in the shop
Where wealthy people used to stop
And hear the Pharisee with awe
Who knew his spices and his law.
But now they worried with his wife,
And even wondered if his life
Could bear the darkness that now seemed
To cover him.
The evening streamed
Back through his mind that he had spent
With Jesus. What that night had meant,
He now would give his wealth and all
His learning, if his baffled thrall
Would give way to the precious light
Of understanding. All his might
And massive memory, his skill
In law for turning God’s sweet will
Into a map of tiny roads,
Seemed useless to decipher codes
That Jesus spoke about the need
Of even Pharisees to heed
His word, “You must be born again.”
Tormented he would say, “Oh when,
Dear God, will you break in and give
Me light? He says I do not live,
And without life will not have light,
And that he is himself the bright
And living fountain where the soul,
In one deep draft, may have the whole
Of sight that lives and life that sees.
But then he says that none do please
To come because we love the dark.
‘You love the dark,’ he said. ‘Just mark
The hour that you came: the night.
And why? Why Nicodemus? Flight?
From scorn and disrespect? Behold
Your god—the praise of man. As old
As Adam and his wife, this dead
And deadening god you love, instead
Of Truth. How can a man believe
When he desires more to receive
The praise of men than see the light
And beauty of his King? You might
Be called a ruler of the Jews,
But, Nicodemus, when you choose
The pleasure of the praise of man
Above your King, and shrink the span
Of your delights from galaxies
Down to the little looks that please
Your shrunken soul, you are a slave
To man, and blind from what you crave.
Once more I say to you: Mere men
Are vain. You must be born again.’”
Day after day the old man pressed
Against these painful words as best
He could to push them through the sieve
Of thought to see if they might give
Some sifted trace of how he might
Receive the miracle of sight
And be set free from all his fear
Of man, and cleave to Truth, more dear
Than all of man’s esteem. It seemed
To him as likely as a dreamed-
Of paralytic leaping through
One night a few
Days just before the Feast, his son,
Whose recent wedding was the one
Where Jesus made the finest wine,
Came up from Galilee to dine
With Nicodemus and to tell
Him what had happened—how the spell
Was broken that enslaved his heart
With fear, and made him dread to part
From any common path or take
A lonely stand for truth, or make
Himself the butt of ridicule,
Or look as if he were a fool.
He told his father, “This has been
My bondage and my lifelong sin—
The fear of man—which seems bizarre
To me because I know you are
The opposite of that—a man
Of courage. You can make a plan
And take your stand, and let the whole
World rage, and take your sacred scroll,
And walk heroically in broad
Daylight unfearing that some fraud
Could ever put your soul to shame.
I’ve often wondered how I came
To be enslaved like this, when you,
My father, are so free. I knew
Somehow the secret must come from
Your God, but I could never plumb
Those depths, it seemed. Where you, unswayed,
Would stand, I always felt afraid.”
He paused. Till now he’d never seen
His father’s face so soft. Serene
Almost, but on the brink of tears.
“The spell is broken, Father. Years
Of slavery to fear. It’s gone.
I thought you might enjoy the dawn
Of my new life and how the curse
Was broken. May I please rehearse
The Story, Father?” “That would make
Me very glad. There’s more at stake
My son, than you can understand.
Please tell me of this mighty hand
That set you free.” “It was a voice,
My father, or perhaps the choice
Alone inside his head. No hand
Was even raised, nor any grand
Or lofty speech. He simply thought
And spoke, and all he meant was brought
To pass.” “Who is it that you mean?”
His father asked. “The man you’ve seen
Turn water into wine. His name
Is Jesus, and since then, his fame
Is spreading like a fire. Do you
Recall the royal legate who
Is quartered in Capernaum?”
“I do. He has a son with some
Disease that no one understands.”
“He came to Jesus, Father, hands
Outstretched, and pleaded that he come
And heal his son. For just a crumb,
That’s all he asked. But Jesus stayed
Away. Instead he spoke, and made
The child completely well. With one
Mere mighty word, ‘Go now; your son
Will live,’ the deed was done. The boy
Is free. I saw him, and the joy
Of his whole house. It was the voice,
My father, just the mighty choice
Of Jesus, and the boy was free.
And, father, listen, did you see
The old man in Jerusalem?
Almost four decades, all of them
Spent waiting by Bethesda pool,
And Jesus asked him, like a fool,
‘Do you want to be healed?’ He said,
‘I have no one to lift my bed
And carry me down to the edge.’
So Jesus said, ‘This is my pledge:
Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’
And, Father, he was healed. They talk
About it everywhere I go.
One word, one mere command to show
He can deliver anyone.
Including me. The work was done
Across the sea of Galilee.
I followed him. I had to see
This for myself. There were at least
Five thousand men. When he had ceased
His teaching, Jesus took five loaves
Of barley bread and without stoves
Or grain or grinding mill or yeast,
He whispered something, and a feast
Was spread for every person in
That crowd. Including me.” The thin
Old man with longing eyes stared at
His happy son. “And, Father, that
Was when it happened. Not the bread;
It was the whisper. I was dead,
And Jesus breathed on me his word,
That I might feed on what I heard
And be set free. And, Father, I
Am free. I’m not afraid to die,
Or live, or take a stand for him.
The future that before was grim
With anxious thoughts, is like a field
Of lilies now. The sky that pealed
With frightful thunders in my mind
Has never once this brightly shined.
And all the gates of bravery,
Once sealed and bolted shut for me,
Are all flung wide and I am free.
O, Father, everything on earth
Is new. It’s like a second birth.
The chains have fallen off. I’m free.
I’m free! O, Father, do you see?”
The old man said, “I think I do.”
“The Lord will make it plain to you,”
His son replied. “It won’t be long.”
The Feast of Booths arrived. The throng
Of souls on pilgrimage could hear
The words of Jesus crystal clear:
“Believe in me and from your soul
Will flow a stream of life.” The whole
Crowd heard his teaching gladly. And
The emissaries who had planned,
With power from the Pharisees,
To capture Jesus, failed to seize
The Lord, and came back powerless.
The Council flamed, “Will you transgress
Against our word? We sent you out
To bring the man. And do you flout
Our right, and treat it like a whim?”
“Sirs, no one ever spoke like him.”
As Nicodemus listened, all
The fear—the paralyzing thrall
Of dread, the cowardice, the ache
Inside for human praise, the lake
Of slavery to terror, drained
Out of his soul. At peace, unchained,
He heard the rulers say, “You are
A band of fools. Has any star
Bowed to the moon, or Pharisee
Believed in him?” Courageously
Old Nicodemus stood and said,
“Does our law judge a man instead
Of giving him a hearing first?”
The Pharisees were stunned. They cursed
Beneath their breath. Then one of them
Replied, “In all Jerusalem
No one but children have believed
In Jesus. They are all deceived.
Or, Nicodemus, is there some
New reason why his friends don’t come
From Priests and Pharisees? Is there
A key of which we’re not aware?
Something, perhaps we do not see?
Perhaps some light from Galilee?”
And Nicodemus answered, “Yes.
There is. And, O, that God would bless
This Council with the eyes to see.
Why do the wise refuse to be
His friends? Because, O pious men—
Because you must be born again.”
And now as we set candle two
In place, dear Lord, please come and do
This miracle of grace. Pour out
On us this life, and end the drought
Of anxious thirst for human praise.
Undo this fear of man and raise
Us from the dead. And we will then
Exult that we are born again.