14 September [Finding of the Holy Cross]
Jn 3:13-17

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever 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 may not perish but may have eternal life.

Nicodemus cannot have been a very great teacher – and Jesus hinted it – because Jews at that time spoke of converts to Judaism as people who were “born again.”  He didn’t seem quite to understand this expression. 

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, first issued in 1902, is an enduring classic.  There he illustrates the contrast between the “once-born” and the “twice-born” (or “born again”) Christian.  The soul of the once-born (or “healthy-minded,” as he calls them) “is of a sky-blue tint… their affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions….[they] can think no ill of man or God…. They have a certain complacency and perhaps romantic sense of excitement.”  In contrast to these, the “twice-born” or “morbid-minded” are more likely to feel that “from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up.”   All natural happiness is infected; there is a deep sense of sin and failure.  To people of this stamp, the attitude of the once-born seems “unspeakably blind and shallow,” while to the once-born the attitude of these “seems unmanly and diseased.”

What if we don’t care for either?  We would prefer to be neither starry-eyed nor morbid-minded.  Are there any other possibilities?  Of course there are!  There are billions in between.  These expressions ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ are labels: they don’t describe anyone in fact.  “If all the good people were red and all the bad people were blue, what colour would you be?” someone asked the little girl.  “Stripey,” she replied.  Nobody is just once-born and nobody is just twice-born.  Anyway, how could you be twice-born unless you were first once-born?  But people still fight about these labels, mostly under new names: ‘creation-centred spirituality’ versus ‘sin/redemption spirituality’, original blessing versus original sin…. 

Labels encourage us to think that there are only two possibilities: ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for example.  But we are both once- and twice-born.  We need to remember that it was the same Jesus who said, “Behold the lilies of the field…” and who sacrificed his own life. 


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This page gives a very brief commentary by Donagh O’Shea on the gospel reading for each day of the month. 


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