In J.L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country, World War I veteran Tom Birkin arrives at a church in the English village of Oxgodby to take a job restoring a Medieval wall painting that has been covered over by centuries of grime and neglect. As Birkin begins his work, he discovers that the painting depicts the Last Judgment, and he forms a quick impression of the figure at the center at the image:
“This was no catalogue Christ, insufferably ethereal. This was a wintry hardliner. Justice, yes there would be justice. But not mercy. That was writ large on each feature for when, by the week’s end, I reached his raised right hand, it had not been made perfect: it was still pierced.
“This was the Oxgodby Christ, uncompromising...no, more—threatening. ‘This is my hand. This is what you did to me. And, for this, many shall suffer the torment, for thus it was with me.’”
Perhaps the prospect of judgment and condemnation makes many of us—including Nicodemus—feel the same apprehension. Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cover of darkness and acknowledges that Jesus has “come from God.” But his questions show that he is perplexed by who Jesus is and by why he has come.
Jesus responds by making it plain that he has been sent by God not to condemn us, but to offer us salvation. He came to suffer for our sins, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
What, then, of judgment and condemnation?
Jesus goes on to say that we bring condemnation on ourselves by refusing to believe in his name, and by rejecting the light because we love the darkness. Just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus “cries out” this same message: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness...The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (Jn. 12:46,48). To remain in darkness is to hold on to the comfortable illusion that we can make ourselves presentable to God by concealing the sinful depths of our hearts from him.
But Lent is an invitation for each of us, like Nicodemus, to “come to the light” and receive the mercy we desperately need. And we can do so without fear of condemnation, because the Light has already come to us, not to condemn us, but that we might be saved through him.
Josh serves on Advent’s Parish Council as Rector’s Warden. He lives in Petworth with his wife Eleanor and their two daughters, and is counting down the days until Opening Day at Nationals Park.