Homily: Born Again
Today’s Gospel is the second half of a passage where Jesus talks at length to
Nicodemus and tells him he must be “Born again.” It’s a phrase that gets used a lot
in American Christianity in particular. I suspect the root of its appeal is the way in
which it reflects a current that runs deep in our culture — our drive to re-invent
Our American culture has always exalted self-improvement. Just look at all the best-
selling and seemingly never-ending series of books like Seven Habits for Highly
Effective People and The Purpose-Driven Life.
It’s one thing to say that we should build a society in which every man, woman, and
child has an equal chance, and another thing — a less healthy thing entirely — to view
life as a never-ending quest for betterment, in which any opportunity not seized joins
a relentlessly accusing chorus surrounding us shouting: “no wonder you’re miserable
— you blew it!”
The chance to reinvent ourselves has become nearly a constant imperative. The
saddest extremes are easy to identify: Take the artist formerly known as Prince. Or
Michael Jackson, for whom the pressure for physical perfection and his nearly
unlimited resources to pursue it, surgically turned him into a freak who rarely
appears in public without a burqua, a sheath, over his head and face. But then
there’s the rest of us out here, quietly wondering whether our lives would be better if
we were that much thinner, or that much more “purpose-driven,” or if we could just
find that right book, that CD, or program that offers a “better you.” That’s because
somewhere deep down is the shadow side of this culture of self-improvement: The unshakeable conviction that you’re just not good enough. And into that gap
jumps the promise to be “born again.”
But following Jesus –or even doing penance for Lent — is not a program for self-
improvement; it’s an invitation to be part of a world-wide community of the Body of
Christ. It’s disconnecting from a network that perpetuates injustice, death, and
alienation and instead be knit into a network that brings healing, reconciliation, and
abundant life rooted in the joys of the Divine.
What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one
loving, supportive family? What would an economy look like that took seriously that
we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, and not a set of
disconnected chunks of land and oil pool and resources to be conquered like a
Monopoly game board? What would a world look like in which we all saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if “family first” included them all as our own flesh
and blood? What sense would restrictive immigration laws make then?
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above” means that Jesus offers
us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another
as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a choice not just for a new name: It’s a
new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life.
Sarah Dylan Breuer The Witness 2006
Jesus gives us the wonderful good news that “God so loved the world that he gave
his only Son.” We are included in that “world,” and it should be most comforting to
hear that we are loved by the One who is most capable of loving. But we must also
notice that the liberating effect of that divine love will be available to us only to the
degree that we believe.
It’s tempting to think that believing in Christ means simply that we know the creed, or
that we agree that Jesus existed and worked miracles and died and rose from the
dead. To accept these truths is important but this isn’t what is meant by “believing”.
In fact, one can sincerely affirm all these facts theoretically and still live very
selfishly. To believe in the One who was “lifted up” means nothing less than that we
can look at the Cross that is the center of our Lenten focus and make his self-
offering part of our own lives. That we can develop a daily, yearly, concern for others; it means, in other words, to live unselfishly. This is the only kind of faith
that will give us eternal life.
Most of us were baptized as infants with no conscious awareness of what was
happening. But, we must “claim” our baptism, as it were, when we are old enough to do so, usually in early adulthood. The sacrament of baptism is not magic, and its graces only become fully operative in our lives in the extent that we accept and live the promises made years ago in our names.
The “big lie” of Satan that we promise to renounce at baptism is our firm resolution to
eliminate from our lives the fantasy that we can achieve happiness while thinking
only of ourselves. Because when we commit ourselves to Christ, we firmly resolve to
follow his example of unselfish, thoughtful concern for others. When we are thus
“lifted up” like Jesus, we can be sure that we will also be “raised up” with
him in the victory of resurrection. In reality, the people who love in this way with
caring self-sacrifice are the only truly happy people in the world. But you won¹t really
know that til you try!
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.