Nicodemus: a personal reflection on the first year of a prayer group.
The Nicodemus Group in Salisbury Catholic Churches was born out of the lockdown when SARS-CoV-2 ransacked all our plans, disrupted our diaries and, in many cases, changed our perspectives. As we came towards the end of what we all hoped was the last of the lockdown iterations, we discussed how to provide the teaching and evangelisation that we felt we and our fellow parishioners needed. I was expecting to run an off-the-peg course like Alpha or maybe something a bit more Catholic such as Sycamore. What we quickly came to realise was that we first needed somewhere for people to land as they came back to the Church. What we came up with was the Nicodemus Group.
We considered doing it the hard way ... then decided to use the door.
What we do
We meet once a week for six weeks at a time, three times a year. Each session is comprised of a prayer to start, then a meal provided by a few people in the group followed by a short scripture reading that we discuss for about forty minutes. Then we close with a short prayer. Very simple. No teaching. We encourage one another to open up so that we can see Christ within each other.
Why do this simple thing?
We choose to eat together because that is what we are encouraged to do by our faith. In First Century Palestine, devout people sought God in seclusion and demonstrated their obedience to God through eschewing certain foods or altogether at certain times. One of the things that surprised people about Jesus was that he did the opposite. Jesus abandoned the austerity of John the Baptist. He condemned the ritualistic fasting of the Pharisees.
Jesus of Nazareth celebrated. He ate well, drank well and was constantly seeking people with whom to eat and talk. Jesus began his ministry at a wedding feast that he attended with his family and his first five disciples. That festivity laid the foundation for the rest of his itinerant ministry. He offered meals to everyone, he sat down to eat with anyone. He did not make people attend upon him in the Temple or come to the Jordan to be cleansed; he sought out those people who thought that they were not worthy to have him under their roof. He shared himself out between people in small family groups and amongst crowds numbering thousands. He crossed religious boundaries, defied social norms and ignored cultural taboo so that he could sit and eat with people who needed him.
We are Christians; we imitate Christ. The simple act of sitting together and sharing a meal and some Good News does not have to be complicated or made more meaningful. He did it. So will we.
The metaphor of the meal is obvious and entirely intended. Coming together at a table, eating together in the presence of the risen Christ, hearing the Gospel and discussing it: these things are modelled on the Last Supper and the Eucharist. It reminds me of two things that I find useful to always keep in the front of my mind. Firstly, we all have a place set for us at the table; we all belong and all are welcome. Secondly, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a present reality in the Mass and in my life. When I fail him, I drive nails into him and fix him to the cross. When I let his love flow through me, when I open myself to another person and allow them to see Christ in me, then he is resurrected.
How we read scripture
During our Nicodemus meals, we listen to a short piece of scripture being read out loud. In the first year we went through Mark’s Gospel, journeying with Jesus through the last three years of his life on Earth. Each time the gospel is read we hear the passage read through once, then again slowly. We try to imagine that we are there, in the scene described, whether we are walking alongside Jesus, being healed by him, listening to a parable or watching him interact with others.
We do it this way because scripture is an art form, one that seeks to describe the transcendent, not a mere historical account or collection of sayings. We understand it in the context of our lives. Each time we hear or read scripture we get different things from it. Our understanding is filtered through the accumulated experiences of our lives, so we get different things from it than the person sitting beside us in church, or on the bus, or wherever we find time to read it. Each time we read it or listen to it attentively, our understanding in that moment is filtered through the life we are living this week or this day. This simple ritual, of reading and then re-reading slowly, helps us to engage our imaginative ‘right-brain’ faculty, turn down the volume on our analytical ‘left-brain’ search for satisfying facts and conclusions, and open ourselves up to what the Holy Spirit is teaching us about our present reality. We must hear the scripture creatively, imaginatively, inventively. This is much easier to do in a group than on our own. Opening ourselves up to one another inspires empathy and compassion and trust. It is in that frame of mind that we can leave our sense of self-importance behind.
What are we trying to achieve?
We are seeking an encounter with Jesus Christ. The central figure in our faith can seem to be a distant figure, even unreal. For many people, he has become like a celebrity or politician about whom we have heard much but whom we will never meet and get to know in any real sense. Jesus is often described by people in vague spiritual terms. I think that is because we accept the second-hand reporting that we receive about him. We read about him, hear about him, talk about him. That is much easier and seems less risky than trying to meet him personally. But what we need is to do is talk to him, listen to him, look at him in the person with whom we share a meal.
Why meet Jesus?
What must it have been like to actually meet him in person? We know from scripture
that the people who sought him out and responded to him positively found the experience to be “good” and “new”. Their encounter with Jesus was renewing, hope-giving, liberating and transformative. That kind of encounter is entirely possible for us. If we can see Jesus in one another, then we meet him in our own life and times. We meet him in his flesh and blood humanity. We meet him in our own life experience and that of others. When we meet Jesus in another person, we open a new horizon over which we can attain a deeper understanding of essential truths about ourselves and one another.
What difference does it make? The example of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, a holy man, a rabbi, Pharisee and a member of the elite Sanhedrin council, first meets Jesus at night. He is in darkness. Jesus talks to him about people who choose to live in darkness because they fear the light. Jesus has come to be the light of the world. He provides Nicodemus with a new way of understanding his relationship with God. Nicodemus, after a lifetime of study, prayer and faithfulness to the law, is finally able to walk towards the light. Nicodemus went to ‘see’ Jesus, to meet him and listen to him so that he could be enlightened. Like Nicodemus, we must have the courage to move from our darkness into his light.