Today we hear Jesus’ astonishing words to Nicodemus on the necessity of being born anew, or born from above. If we stop to think about it, this is an extraordinary image, for, as Nicodemus responds, how can one really be born a second time? Yet Jesus is referring to a transformation that is so radical that it plunges us into a newness that can best be described as a new birth. Saint Gregory the Theologian writes,
And indeed from the Spirit comes our new birth, and from the new birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from whom it is derived.
Saint Athanasius the Great tells us that this rebirth really involves the re-creation of God’s image in us. We are created in God’s image, but this image has become distorted by the fall and so Jesus Christ comes to raise up that which had fallen, as we sing at Pascha. He writes,
Once the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from outside itself, the one whose likeness it is needs to come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood. And, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it. In the same way, the most holy Son of the Father, being the image of the Father, came to our world to renew humankind once made in His likeness. He came to find such lost individuals by the remission of their sins. He says as much Himself in the Gospels: ‘I came to find and save the lost.’ This is why He also said to the Jews, ‘Except one be born again,’ not meaning, as they thought, birth from a woman, but speaking of the soul born and created anew in the likeness of God’s image.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint John 3:1-15:
At that time, there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nikodemos, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nikodemos said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, and you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nikodemos said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And 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.”