‘The Good Old Days.’ That’s an expression that brings to mind lovely memories of the (usually distant) past when everything was better than it is now. It’s a verbal and mental remedy that’s employed to soothe the uncertainties and anxieties of the here-and-now as well as of the future. Yet in fact the nostalgia of ‘The Good Old Days’ is only as effective as a placebo. We may yearn for the safety and certainties of the past only because that past has been significantly amended in our minds. The bad things of the past have either lost some of their painful emotional edge or have faded away, while the good things of those days have been enhanced. Constantly looking back to ‘The Good Old Days’ is the mental equivalent of resorting to tranquillisers, harmless enough unless it becomes a tool for escaping from the present.
‘The Good Old Days.’ This phrase subconsciously sets the ever-changing, dynamic environment of the present over against ever-stable, centuries-long customs, habits and traditions of the past, with any changes happening at a glacial pace. Undoubtedly, over the last century or so, changes seem to have gathered in pace. But of course, the whole of human history is a story of change, adaptation, modification and evolution, marked every now and again by significant and sometimes spectacular events. However, the significance of those events most often becomes clear only with the benefit of hindsight, well after they have taken place. Think, for example, about the Crucifixion of Jesus: at the time of his death he was perceived as just another religiously-driven political troublemaker in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire. Yet, his impact has totally transformed the world, way beyond what his followers could ever have imagined. In fact, his life-changing influence is still at work across the globe.
Nicodemus, the man to whom Jesus is speaking in today’s gospel, was a Pharisee – a member of an ancient Jewish sect distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written Law. The Pharisees were commonly held as an elite holding pretensions to superior sanctity. The term ‘Pharisee’ was derived from an Aramaic word meaning ‘the separated one.’ These men considered themselves as the guardians of the Jewish religion. In the gospels they are often portrayed as uncompromising, relentless and very vocal opponents of Jesus. Yet one them, Nicodemus, summoned up the courage to meet Jesus – albeit secretly and under cover of darkness – ready to be challenged on his understanding of God. Unlike most of his colleagues, Nicodemus entered into dialogue with Jesus instead of rejecting his teachings outright. And – boy! – was Nicodemus well-and-truly challenged. To see what I mean, I’d strongly recommend that you read their entire conversation in the 3rd chapter of St John’s gospel. Yet, out of that conversation, difficult as it was for Nicodemus, we have one of the most moving, heart-warming and hope-inducing proclamations of God’s love and of Jesus’ mission: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (John 3:16-17)
It’s ironic that the Pharisees, the group so focused on preserving and fulfilling religious duties and rituals, failed to recognise what a significant shift in their cherished religion had occurred; it was the most significant, but not the only one in their long history, as it had been attested to throughout the Old Testament. Those focused on preserving the religion missed the greatest gift that God was sending them: the long-awaited Messiah.
The danger of overlooking the gifts of God wasn’t a blind spot exclusive to the Pharisees. It’s a danger that each one of us faces when we become complacent in our religious and spiritual life. This condition is far more common than one might think. It can present in different shapes and forms, but what is common to them all is that faith stops developing. There are Christians out there whose religious understanding has got stuck at First Communion level; it’s like grown-ups trying to wear their favourite clothing from childhood – it simply doesn’t fit any more. There are Christians who diligently fulfil their religious duties, obligations and rituals; but, at the same time, they are judgemental, unsympathetic or intolerant towards their imperfect neighbours. It’s true for each one of us that our beliefs are continually being challenged. It is possible for us to see those challenges only as obstacles, or as spanners thrown in the works, or as irritants. Objectively, they probably are all those things. But we can also utilise those challenges to grow in faith, because God works in the here-and-now through the incidents we experience and the people with whom we become involved. Let me tell you: ‘The Good New Days’ lie ahead.