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From James Tissot’s famous Bible illustration series, the Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus strives to depict with careful attention to period detail the scene from John’s Gospel in which Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night to learn more from him about his teaching.
Tissot researched his Bible series by traveling to the Holy Land, and the details in clothing, furnishings, and domestic life all help transport the viewer into the world of the Bible, or at least the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. Even more compelling than the setting, though, is the intimacy between the figures of Jesus and Nicodemus. The image communicates the hospitality, warmth, and friendship that are available to us no matter who we are or when we arrive at Christ’s door.
Jesus and Nicodemus are seated close to one another. One can almost hear their hushed tones, their low voices so as not to disturb the sleeping world around them. Jesus embodies hospitality—he looks squarely yet kindly at Nicodemus as he explains to him what has become the most quoted passage of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus reaches over with one hand to reassure Nicodemus and invite his friendship. There is no sense in Christ that Nicodemus is intruding at this late hour, but he welcomes him and meets him where he is with kindness and truth. Nicodemus leans in and looks down; he is listening intently and seems deeply moved by the words.
For today’s viewer, the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus might bring to mind the contemporary Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially the moment when the penitent, having confessed his sins, now listens intently to the counsel of the confessor. The candle-lit setting is reminiscent of a retreat or a Reconciliation service, often the context of the sacrament. Jesus’ reassuring hospitality is powerful when perceived in this light.
With this understanding, the removed shoes in front of the mat, a sign of domestic tradition, here become symbols of something more: the holy ground of encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, a holy ground for friendship and reconciliation, for healing and finding truth.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
Image: James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème), 1886–1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 9 1/8 x 7 in. (23.2 x 17.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.64
In Chapter 7 of Called to Be Catholic, the catechist points out that when we are physically ill, a doctor will often write a prescription for medication or some other treatment to help us get better. Young people are invited to think about ways we suffer spiritually, feel lost, or struggle with sin. After reading about the power of forgiveness and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, ask young people to imagine what kind of prescription Christ might write to heal our hearts and make us spiritually well. Guide young people to write two or three sample prescriptions and then share them with a partner.
When finished, say: Nicodemus came to Jesus for forgiveness and learning. Though it was late, Jesus welcomed Nicodemus and gave him his full attention and care. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are seeking to be soothed by Jesus’ forgiveness. Now think: when others seek our forgiveness, do we give them our attention and care? Encourage young people to think periodically about the prescriptions they might write for themselves when they need reminders to be forgiving and open, like Jesus.
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Also see Arts & Faith: Lent Cycle A and Lent Cycle C, and Using Arts & Faith: Lent with the RCIA