Seeing with the Ears

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop, Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop

He comes by night. He slips along the buildings of the city streets in hopes that no one will notice. He is a man of position and authority, a learned teacher with a Ph.D. in religion on his way to the kindergarten teacher. “Everything I need to know in life I learned in Kindergarten,” wrote Robert Fulghum. Nicodemus has a sense that he has lost a thing or two along the way, that he needs to start over again.

He’s sent a private message asking for a confidential meeting. The arrangements have been made for the time and place…under the cover of darkness… at Nicodemus’ request.

Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt pulled up around his face and wearing an old trench coat to blend in with displaced people who spend the night on the street, Nicodemus changes his normally stately gait on the way to his secret meeting.

Arriving at the appointed address at the appointed time, he ducks quickly to his left into the alley and darts up the stairs to the flat roof where the kindergarten teacher is waiting.


“Shalom aleikem!”

They kiss each other on the cheeks, the left and then the right, as is the custom among their people.

The teacher motions to the wood stool his hands have made for  occasions like this. The stool is well-worn by others who have come it at night, some by advance arrangement, others on the spur of the moment, when the darkness outside or within themselves has overwhelmed them and a hot cup of chamomile tea or warm milk won’t help them get back to sleep.

Nicodemus sits on the stool. But there is no second stool or chair. The teacher takes his customary place on the wall at the roof’s edge, his body and face partially lit by a full-moon, the city landscape and the whole world over the teacher’s shoulder, a strange kind of classroom. Nicodemus can see him – sitting calmly, erect, at full attention, his eyes fixed on his eyes, steady and searching and seeing, it seems, what even Nicodemus does not yet know about himself and the real reason he has come.

The man on the wall sits and waits for Nicodemus to break the silence. The wordlessness does not trouble him. He is at home with silence.

“You are a teacher who has come from God because no one can do what you do apart from the presence of God,” declares Nicodemus.

Nicodemus awaits a response to his declaration of honor, but there comes no response except for the eyes beholding him.

Nicodemus fidgets, uncomfortable with the silence. He repeats his declaration, increasing the decibels in case the teacher is hard of hearing, but not so loud as to wake the neighbors, the street people, or the police:

“You are a teacher who has come from God because no one can do what you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus gives a slight nod and looks at him from the wall.

“No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born anew,” he says.

“So it’s about seeing?”

“Yes. It’s about seeing.”

Turning and pointing to the world over his shoulder, he asks Nicodemus, “Do you see this magnificent landscape behind me?… Look at it… Really look… What do you see?”

“I see a mess.”

“Ah, but look again, Nicodemus. You’re looking with the wrong eyes. It is a mess. Anyone can see the mess. If you look, you can see a different outline through the darkness. Maybe you need glasses. Maybe your ears will help you see.”

They fall again into the silence, but the words – “Maybe your ears will help you see” – speak to an inner darkness. Nicodemus looks with his ears at the night landscape and the distant horizon and the stars over the teacher’s shoulder, listening to the faintest sound of a familiar tune they both had learned in kindergarten at the synagogue.

Jesus, is humming.  Softly. Without thinking, Nicodemus joins in humming the tune, and then begins to mouth the words, the familiar words spoken quietly by every faithful Jew living under Roman occupation and in the dark nights of the soul, the words sung or spoken in silence by every Jew on the way home from synagogue, a kind of lullaby of faith, a way of seeing with the ears:

“Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” (repeat twice)

“May your coming be in peace angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He. (repeat twice)

“Bless me with peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He.” (repeat twice)

“May your departure be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He.” (repeat twice)

“For He will instruct His angels in your behalf, to guard you in all your ways. The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from now and for evermore.”

7 thoughts on “Seeing with the Ears

  1. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:

    Two things coincided yesterday. The Sunday morning Gospel text (Nicodemus’s night visit with Jesus) and a link to a previously unknown author’s work (Max Picard’s The World of Silence) read aloud on Picard’s words about silence sent me back to see what I had said about silence and Nicodemus in this dark night of the soul.


  2. You have succeeded for me in this: ” I wanted to take move the story out of the platitudinous distortions.” For me, and I believe for very many people, those “platitudinous distortions” do not breathe anything lifelike. What I need, and have always tried to offer, is Real People. That’s what I heard in this piece.

    For me for most of my life, Bible stories were about plastic figures who were nothing like me or anything in my life ever was. They held a level of perfection and wisdom that I could never aspire to. Seeing them as real people in real interactions with God/Jesus, was a true game-changer for me.

    I taught my confirmation classes about these Biblical people as our ancestors of the faith. The Family Tree began with Eve and Adam. As we got into Rachel, Leah, Jacob and the boys, my students became very intrigued. In fact, they were so interested in what kind of crazy family dysfunction was coming next, that they asked me if they could read ahead! I will always treasure that affirmation of my instincts.

    I will remember and continue to benefit from the story you’ve told here. Thank you.


  3. Supremely clear message—submit to that which is more faithful than we will ever be, and repeat after me, repeat until the repetition brings a melody of comfort, putting the world back in its right order, a shalom built in the moonlight and carried into the days ahead. Thank you for that sense of order, a trench coat sleuthing from ancient times until today….


    • Thanks, Kay. I wasn’t sure it would be clear. As you know, it’s a bit of a different style of writing for me, a first attempt at some things I hadn’t tried before. You see, I have this wonderful woman I wake up with every morning who helps me to see through the darkness, through the dark shadows of raw grief. “Submit to that which is more faithful than we,” she says, as does “Shalom aleikem” to both Jesus and Nicodemus. “Repeat..repeat…repeat…” down through the ages and through streets and alleys of the city and the heart and mind. Nobody gets it quite the way you do. Thanks for everything.


    • I love everything you said above, except the word “submit.” That word is so loaded! I’d like to “listen” to that which is more faithful. . .” Thanks for the imagery you’ve provided, especially this: “a trench coat sleuthing from ancient times until today….” So vivid.


  4. Wonderful, Gordon. I usually sign my emails and letters “Peace. Carolyn,” but I must admit I am usually thinking of Afghanisran, Honduras, Sudan (North and South), and all the other places where people are killing and wounding other people. This is a different kind of peace, and I needed it.


    • Thank you, Carolyn. It appears that we both share a likeness to Nicodemus. The darkness often overwhelms me. This story is from the third chapter of the Gospel of John, remembered for John 3:16 (“God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”) and for the interesting character named Nicodemus. I wanted to take move the story out of the platitudinous distortions of the story into a dialectical and dialogical exchange that seems to be written between the lines of John’s text. The Gospel of John, like all Gospels, is faith’s interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of a man named Jesus. Somehow or other this Jesus of faith is always waiting in the middle of the city on the rooftop of a common dwelling, entered from the alley…often at night. The world IS a mess! It isn’t a mess because of the whales, the dolphins, or the birds. It’s the mess human hands have made because we have seen with the ears of exceptionalism and superiority. More than you asked for by way of a response. But…it’s morning, and I’m most reflective in the morning hours. Glad the piece was meaningful. Grace and Peace, Gordon


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