Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:13-17


It is surprising that Nicodemus didn’t understand the expression “born again”. May be he wasn’t a great teacher – and Jesus hinted it – because Jews at that time spoke of converts to Judaism as people who were “born again.”

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” 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,” as he called them) 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…. the list is long.

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.

Giltus Mathias CP is a Passionist priest that lives at St.Brigi’s Community Marrickville.