‘For I am meek and humble of heart’

Nicodemus visits with Jesus at night in this 17th century work of Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn.

Nicodemus makes a good heavenly companion for the Easter season. Although he does not appear in any of the Resurrection accounts per se, the Church places his story before us in the Mass readings for Eastertide. His journey teaches us how humility can put us in intimate touch with God by detaching us from an exaggerated opinion of ourselves and a disordered desire for others’ esteem.

“Humility” comes from the Latin word humus, meaning “soil” or “earth.” The humble person lives in the light of the first chapters of Genesis, acknowledging both his lowly origins in the earth’s dust and his noble call, as made in God’s image, to union with Him.

Nicodemus first demonstrated humility by approaching Jesus, stealthily, by night, to learn more about His teaching. Nicodemus belonged to Israel’s elite ruling class, the Pharisees, whose members knew all the ramifications of the Mosaic law and thus theoretically, unlike the common man, were able to keep that law perfectly and find favor with God. Yet Nicodemus suspected Jesus had something he lacked, and he risked derision and censure to find out. Jesus, however, instead of commending Nicodemus’s humility, tested it: “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand [spiritual rebirth]?” (John 3:10).

Undeterred by Christ’s shining a light on his own inadequacies — inadequacies in the area of which Pharisees were most proud, knowledge of divine things — Nicodemus must have continued to visit Jesus. His growing insight into God’s law of love and his reverence for Christ bore fruit at a crucial moment: emerging from the shadows of his fear, he defended Christ publicly before his fellow Pharisees: “Does our law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?” (John 7:51). Nicodemus turns the law, of which the Pharisees are the confident custodians, against them, but he, too, is ridiculed: “You are not from Galilee also, are you?” — from a cultural backwater, and thus so benighted as to accept a prophet from such a place?

Nicodemus however, instructed by Truth, knows his real origin and destiny and is no longer troubled by others’ disdain. We witness, in his last appearance in the Gospel, a man who rises above not only the Pharisees’ ridicule but also a merely legalistic concern for ritual purity that would have forbidden his touching a dead body. Here love triumphs — but Nicodemus’s burying Christ is also a triumph of humility, because, in the face of his teacher’s failure and the apparent silence of God, Nicodemus does not give up in despair or anger. He waits, trusting the God of his fathers, who remains ever faithful, even when, from our perspective, darkness seems to have prevailed.

And when Sunday dawns and the Apostles are able to touch the resurrected flesh of Christ, Nicodemus realizes that he is among the last humans ever to touch Christ’s unresurrected flesh. The man of humus touches the humus of the God-Man.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. This article was inspired by a meditation on Nicodemus and humility by Fr. Hervé Guillez in the French edition of Magnificat, April 2018.