Nicodemus

Arguably the most popular verse in the Bible is John 3:16, which is included in today’s Gospel reading.

Nicodemus, Henry O. Tanner, 1899, oil on canvas 85.6 x 100.3 cm., Pennsylvania  Academy of the Fine Arts.

Nicodemus, Henry O. Tanner, 1899, oil on canvas 85.6 x 100.3 cm., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

 

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. 
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
John 3:14-21

In the painting featured for this post, we see the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner’s visualization of this meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. Tanner (1859-1937) was at the time the only African American student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Because of Jim Crow racism in the United States, Tanner relocated to France in 1891, becoming an ex-pat there and achieving success with his paintings of religious themes. He later traveled to the Holy Land, which he thought was important for the study of the actual settings depicted in his Biblically-based works. He’s been called a “Mystical painter” because of both his religious subjects and the use of stillness and light in his works.

In our scene of Jesus and Nicodemus, Tanner depicts the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. The twilight blues of the scene convey the sense of darkness, while lamplight shines up the stairway and onto the face and figure of Jesus. Jesus is also illuminated by the moonlight, seen on his left forehead, and he appears to have an inner light that radiates from his chest. Although these three light sources illuminate him and we can see his intense gaze focused on Nicodemus, his countenance is still dark and rather obscure. Tanner’s portrayal of a dark-skinned yet enigmatic Jesus has provoked speculation. One author writes, “Tanner’s obscure and racially unspecific Christ functions less as a representation than as an enticing vehicle of salvation, through which the beholder may imagine the holy kingdom” (Alan C. Braddock, “Painting the World’s Christ: Tanner, Hybridity, and the Blood of the Holy Land” in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, Vol. 3 Issue 2, Autumn 2004).

Tanner himself wrote “My efforts have been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting … but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.”

We see Nicodemus, the council member and respected elder, coming in the dark of night to say that he believes Jesus comes from God. Despite his worldly status, he is seated a little lower than Jesus in the pose of a student as Jesus speaks of Himself as the light of the world. I imagine myself seated thus before my Lord, gazing at the light of God that radiates from him. What is he saying to me? Do I also prefer to approach Him in the darkness, so as to hide my deeds even from myself?

We are in the lengthening days of springtime now, when the light increases and the darkness diminishes. Am I allowing the light to penetrate my soul, or am I just putting on a veneer of light for the world to see?  For many years I preferred to hide in the darkness. Through God’s saving grace and John 3:16, I made the decision to follow Christ, little knowing the challenges and changes I would face because of that decision. I am continually challenged to face my own darkness and bring it into the light, a difficult task for me. But Jesus assures me that the love of God will meet me there with a heart of mercy. For that, I am very grateful.

Here’s one of my favorite songs about God’s mercy and love:

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Nicodemus

  1. ann deakers says:

    beautiful, Jane. How I love David Crowder…thanks for including!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jane arney says:

    Reblogged this on Infinite Windows and commented:

    This week’s readings return once again to the nocturnal meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, so let’s have another look at this Tanner image and listen once more to the song by David Crowder.

    Like

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