Oscar is a small red-haired bundle of endearing energy who peers at the word through John Lennon glasses so thick that when you read a map you can see people waving. Terminally incapable of sitting still, his presence at a school assembly is likely to bring to naught the most carefully crafted presentation. Exactly what he feels about it all is hard to tell, since his speech is all but incomprehensible and he’s clearly got ‘a problem’, but whatever it is, he’s clearly finding life rewarding. Oscar would never, ever fit into a flow-chart on classroom (or Church) management, and rather would stand there injecting his subversive presence into the situation with his face-wide grin.
The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus rather reminds me of Oscar. Nicodemus appears, grave, thoughtful, cautious, articulate, informed, to find out what this Jesus character might be about. What he gets has more in common with Oscar’s subversive smile than the Senior Common Room conversation that Nicodemus might have hoped for. Jesus’s enigmatic phrases — ‘being born from above’, ‘the wind blows where it chooses’ — leave Nicodemus’s formulæ in tatters, so much so that Jesus asks impishly, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’
The longing so clearly present in Nicodemus’s opening statement is to try and understand how Jesus, this God-sent teacher, fits into his, Nicodemus’s, world-picture. The succeeding sentences demolish any hope of making sense of Jesus through such a lens, much as Oscar demolishes assemblies, not by being disruptive but by refusing to fit the expected pattern. The talk is of mystery, of inexplicable, unprompted acts of God, of a universe which cannot be constrained, neither by Nicodemus’s interpretative matrix nor even by his hopes. Consequently, Nicodemus must either leave his old lexicon behind, or else never acknowledge the new reality he has glimpsed, a decision whose outcome we are left to imagine for ourselves.
This encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is a rebuke to every dream of an all-embracing systematic theology, even to those vain attempts to come up with definitive explanations of how Calvary and Redemption interact. We approach Jesus with our painstakingly worked out hypotheses and theories, only to realise in the moment of encounter that they miss the point almost entirely, that our understanding is almost completely unlike the truth, and that we have to choose between returning to something we now know to be more idol than deity or accepting that our carefully-laid foundations have yet again proved inadequate. ‘Are you a teacher of ordinands, and yet you do not understand these things?’
There is something profoundly disorientating yet also profoundly liberating about Oscar so clearly rejoicing in something far more important than what we think we’re doing so worthily and well. He brings us up short against another reality which we’ve missed, despite our dogged preparation. Thus too the subversive Christ: we can either ignore him as an unfortunate impediment to our carefully calculated blueprint of God’s grace, or welcome his invitation to something far richer and greater. Whether our love affair is with the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation or the Enlightenment, perhaps a useful Lenten self-denial might be to allow Oscar’s Christ to amble around the over-ordered schoolroom of our souls — and surprise us.
David Rowett is vicar of Barton-on-Humber in the diocese of Lincoln.