Nicodemus, Part 1
The wine was flowing freely at
The finest wedding banquet that
The folks had seen in Cana since
The only daughter of the prince
Of Galilee had woven what
The locals called “the perfect knot.”
This time the ranking Pharisee
Had spread a table that would be
More lavish than the finest feast
And wine that any prince or priest
Had ever spread in Galilee.
His youngest son today would be
The last to marry. Then the old
Man and his wife, they thought, could fold
Their wrinkled hands across their laps,
And spend their final days, perhaps,
Beside the sea of Galilee,
Surrounded by the treasures he
Had gathered over forty years
Of skill and work. No financiers
In all of Israel had been
As shrewd as he, nor labored in
The night, nor made a sweeter spice
From balsam wood, nor made a slice
Of cedar serve as perfume for
The queen, nor healed a fest’ring sore
With aloe plants, nor made such myrrh
And anise that the princes were
His patrons, and would come from far
Away—from lands where such things are
Not found—to buy the spices which
Had made old Nicodemus rich.
If someone said, “You make us pay
Too much for these,” He’d smile and say,
“If you can find a better spice
Than mine in all of Israel,
I’ll fill a bag at highest price
And waste it on a criminal.”
No one had ever met his boast.
And so he was, it seemed, the most
Successful businessman to take
His place among the court, and make
Himself a name, not only for
His spice and wealth, but even more
Because he could recite the law
Of Moses fully without flaw.
He was a Pharisee, and all
The details of this wedding, small
Or great, would be done right. When he
Was walking on the porch to see
The guests who could not fit inside
The house, he stopped abruptly, spied
The empty wall, and trembled. Jars!
Six massive urns, pure shining stars,
Set in a constellation like
A sign: Touch not! For God will strike
The ones who take the vessels set
To purify our lives, and let
Them serve a common use. He took
A servant by the arm, “Here, look!
The holy urns! They’re gone! They’re gone!
Where are they?” He replied, “They’re on
The patio. They’re full of wine,
Sir. Very good wine, sir.” “The line
That separates the holy and
The common is not drawn in sand,
But etched in stone by God,” the tone
Of Nicodemus’ voice, like stone,
Was hard and cold. “Who dared to take
These sacred urns today and make
Them into common things?” “The man
There with his mother, Sir.” “And can
A guest of mine command that jars
For purity, like brilliant stars
That make the dark of sin shine bright
With holiness, should be so slight
That you, my servants, would obey,
And fill them with the bloody spray
Of grapes beneath the feet of who
Knows what Gentile to make this brew?”
“Sir, please. We did not fill the urns
With wine.” “They filled themselves? Truth burns
The shirt of him who holds it in.
Make haste. I smell the smoke of sin.”
“We filled the jars with water, sir.”
“So you are saying that I err
When I assume someone bought wine
And put it in the jars?” “No vine,
No grapes, no feet to press the blood
Of grapes, no desecrating mud
From off the street. We simply took
The water from the well, and look!
The guests all think you saved the best
For last. But sir, upon my breast
I put my hand and swear: He turned
The water into wine. I’ve earned
Your trust for many years, my lord.
One moment this was water poured
From your own well, and crystal clear,
Then it was wine. God has come near.”
“Do you know this man’s name?” “His name
Is Jesus, sir. He said he came
Because someone invited him.
Perhaps, before the day grows dim,
You’d want to talk to him. I told
Him who you were. He said, ‘The old
Man with phylacteries? I know
Him.’” “He said that he knows me? Though
I’ve never met the man?” “Yes, sir,
That’s what he said.” “Thank you, I’ll stir
That in among my thoughts and weigh
It with the rest. Strange wedding day.”
“Yes sir, strange wedding day indeed.”
But Nicodemus didn’t heed
The servant’s word that day, to speak
With Jesus face to face. A week
Or more went by, and this time in
Jerusalem he saw him spin
A whip from ragged ropes, drive out
The sellers from the court, and shout,
“My Father’s House is not a place
Of trade. And let there be no trace
Of bag, or oxen dung, or scale,
Nor even finest spice for sale.”
And at that very moment he
Looked up across the court to see
The eyes of Nicodemus set
Like stone. And when their faces met,
It was as though a meeting now
Was set that long ago somehow
Had been appointed with an aim
That Nicodemus could not name
Or even less escape. He turned
Away, and wondered why he burned
Inside not with the rage he knew
So well, but something far more true,
More real, than anything he’d known.
Tonight, he thought, he’ll be alone.
So Nicodemus in the dark
Of night, when none would see or mark
His coming, found the teacher who
Had made his water-well into
A winery, and made his spice
Bazaar look like a sordid vice,
All broken down and scattered on
The Temple floor. “Rabbi, upon
My word, I do affirm you are
A teacher come from God. And far
Be it from me to doubt that you
Could do these signs unless it’s true
That God is with you.” But before
The old man could go on with more,
The Lord said, “Truly, truly I
Now say to you, my friend, you pry
The meaning of my signs in vain,
Nor will you ever see or gain
The saving reign of God unless
You have been born again. Confess
Your need of this, great ruler of
The Jews.” The old man said, “A dove
Cannot crawl back into its egg;
Much less could I, a man, go beg
My mother that I enter now
Again into her womb somehow
And thus be born again.” “I tell
You, Nicodemus, you should dwell
More deeply on the fact that I
Used purifying jars—ask why!—
To fill with my own blood-red wine,
And mark the covenant design
Of union twixt a man and wife.
Have you no eyes, no heart, no life
To see that all of this was sign?
It did not have to do with wine.
And when I turned the tables in
The Temple upside down, the sin
Is only worse when you don’t see
It’s not about the sheep, but me.
O Nicodemus, until you
Are born again, and have a new
And Spirit-given life, you will
Be like the living dead, blind still.
Just like the foolish child who sees
His mother point toward mighty trees,
And will not look toward where they stand,
But only sees his mother’s hand.
Are you a sage with Israel’s keys,
And do not know these ABCs?”
Lord, let the flame of candle one
Point like a finger to the Son.
And let the eyes of ev’ry heart,
With sacred life that you impart,
Be opened, lest your heaven-land
We miss while gazing at the hand.
Forbid that we would see the sign
And miss the thing that you design.
O that your beauty, sharp and clear,
Would penetrate our darkness here.
Make windows in the things of earth:
This is the joy of second birth.
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