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The Sign Of Jonah And The Fast Of Nineveh


Although it is one of the shortest books of the Old Testament, the Book of Jonah has a very important place in the Church's liturgical year. The "Fast of Nineveh" or "Jonah's Fast" comprises three days of fasting, followed by the Feast of Jonah itself. This liturgical celebration of our Church is set just a few days after Epiphany and two weeks before Great Lent. The Church's positioning the fast in this liturgical sequence has a mystical significance. During the service of Matins on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of that week, the entire Book of Jonah is read. Why indeed should the Church devote so much attention to such a short book written by such an obscure prophet? (In fact, all we know about Jonah himself comes just from his book and a single reference to him in 2Kings 14:25.) Succinctly put, the Church sees within this book's simple story an icon of Christ symbolically represented.


How could such a "cute" story about an unwilling prophet who gets swallowed by a fish when he tries to escape doing God's will carry such a profound meaning? Unlike other prophetic books, the Book of Jonah does not contain "words of prophecy," as such, but rather it tells a tale of Jonah's personal encounter with the Lord. Using a story motif, Jonah's prophecy speaks to us not with words but with symbols. Reading these symbols spiritually, we behold the mystery of salvation in Christ exemplified in imagistic types. Indeed, it is no wonder that this book also portrays a unique instance in the Old Testament of God's love and concern not just for His own people, Israel, but for a nation of Gentiles who were actually Israel's enemies. Here again we find an archetype of Christ's mission of salvation extending beyond Israel to embrace the whole world, all the enemies of God.



(1:1-3) Like this world, Nineveh certainly deserved to be destroyed because of its great sin and evil, for "the wickedness of man (is) great in the earth and...every imagination of the thoughts of his heart (is) only evil continually" (Gen. 5:5). When the people of Noah's day persisted resolutely in their evil, God destroyed the old world by flood. But the infinitely merciful God does not truly desire the death of the sinner, but that he should repent and live. And so the word of the Lord came to Jonah to call Nineveh to repentance. But Nineveh's salvation was not to be achieved by mere preaching and ardent sermons alone but by a sacrificial washing away of the people's sins in yet another kind of flood. Either Nineveh (symbolizing the world) must suffer this flood (death and destruction) by itself or another must endure it mystically on their behalf. Only a prophet of Jonah's stature could possibly take Nineveh's place in this flood.


(1:4) The image of "wind into the sea" is a clear sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God creatively renewing His creation. After all, in the very beginning, "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2). And after the flood, when God had begun to "recreate" the earth, even as Noah and his family were still in the ark, a dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, was sent out to pass over the waters and return as a sign of safety and life to Noah. It is certainly no accident, by the way, that the name "Jonah" means "dove" in the Hebrew tongue.


Exodus gives us yet another example of wind upon waters as a sign of God's creative work of salvation. As we recall, after the Children of Israel (i.e., the sons of God) had lost all joy in life due to Pharaoh's oppression in their servitude, God chose to restore them to a life of freedom through His chosen prophet Moses. To effect their escape from Pharaoh's attacking armies, "the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided" (Ex. 14:21). In the same way, when Nineveh had lost its purity and was fast approaching destruction, God "sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest." By doing so, He had begun to prepare the means of Nineveh's salvation, namely, Jonah himself, a "dove", who, as in Noah's case, would become a sign of life and safety for the Ninevites.


All of these images are archetypes which foreshadow God's ultimate salvation of this world whose "wickedness is come up before" God. For those who had eyes to see, these signs were obvious when our Lord Jesus Christ revealed Himself to Israel at His Baptism: He "went up straightway out of the water, and lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him" (Mt. 3:16). In the symbols given us here, we are signaled that our Lord is manifesting Himself not just as a Redeemer but actually as a "Renewer" of His creation. The meaning of these images were not lost on St. John the Baptist and Forerunner either, for in them he witnessed this world's ultimate salvation "by water and the Spirit."


(1:8-17) In this dramatic passage, God paints us an icon of Christ Himself. Surely, although the mariners do not wish to perish, the alternative of throwing Jonah into the sea is overwhelming for the men to accept. It is a solution that allows for no half-measures. Utter is its finality. With their petty understanding of God's purpose, they continued to strive by their own limited means to save themselves. But at last, exhausted, they relented and obeyed the will of the Lord and trusted God. If the ship (emblematic of the Church) perishes, the city (symbolic of the world) certainly cannot survive the storm of destruction their sin has brought. Only the sacrifice of one man can save them both: the first by its willing participation in the sacrifice ordained by God and the latter by heeding God's call to repentance and accepting the benefits of that sacrifice, for "neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other Name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12) than that of Jesus Christ.


(1:17-2:9) In the prayers preceding the Sanctification of the Sacred Oblations in the Liturgy of St. Basil, the priest declares the mystery of salvation by affirming, "He loved His own who are in the world and gave Himself up for our salvation unto death which reigned over us, whereby we were bound and sold on account of our sins. He descended into Hades through the Cross." And in graphic detail, the beautiful psalm/prayer spoken by Jonah above perfectly describes the horrible isolation and suffering of a soul spiritually "bound and sold" and cut off from God and His "Holy Temple" by "death which reigned over us." To restore the image (or icon) of God within humanity, Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, had to partake of this utter isolation on our behalf. And so "He that descended (into the lower parts of the earth) is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens (to the true "Holy Temple" of God), that He might fill all things" (Eph. 4:9-10, combined).


(2:10-3:4) Of course, Jonah's emergence from the fish after three days and nights foreshadows archetypally Christ's Resurrection. After being disgorged from the bowels of "Sheol", Jonah strikes us as a man transformed. The Jonah who entered the fish had died, while the Jonah who now no longer seeks to flee God's presence but rather rushes off gladly to do God's bidding is a "new creature" in the fullest sense of the expression. How this "transfiguration" occurs in those abysmal depths remains a mystery to us. But this death-and-Resurrection from water can only represent the mystery of Baptism. Again, the iconography of God in His sacred Scriptures makes it easier for our finite minds to understand intuitively this Divine Sacrament that so completely transcends our rational thought. He gives us all the necessary elements: the wind sent out into the sea, the three days' sojourn in a watery Hades, and the coming forth of a "new man" from the grave. All of these types should have been obvious in their symbolic meaning to a man as well versed in the Scriptures as Nicodemus. No wonder Jesus lost patience with him when he could not understand His saying, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (Jn. 3:5-8). Only by Baptismal Resurrection could Jonah, the sinner, have the power to please God and the right to serve Him in His Kingdom.


(3:5-10) Just imagine what would happen if a man came to our city and preached as Jonah had to the Ninivites! Would our response be as instantaneous and as heartfelt as theirs? As simple as they were, the words of his prophecy alone cannot account for the people's overwhelming reaction to Jonah. Indeed, his presence itself was all the people needed to take his warning seriously, because here before them stood a man who was himself a sign from God (see Lk. 11:30). By the power they could feel emanating from him, coupled with his words, the people from high to low estate collectively donned sackcloth and fasted for forty days and nights. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we know ourselves to exceed the Ninevites in evil and to fail them in repentance. It is at best lukewarm, and our fasting is hardly from the deepest parts of our hearts. Rather than wearing sackcloth, we prefer luxury and lasciviousness. And if any of us actually "cries" unto the Lord, who among us cries mightily? Who has really turned from his evil way and the violence of his hands?


For this reason, our Lord Jesus Christ fasted in the desert forty days and nights on our behalf. Only the fasting of the God-man is truly pure, powerful, and acceptable to the Lord. By fasting then, He fasts with us now to compensate for and to complete our lukewarm fasting, so that it might rise as a sweet-smelling savor to the Lord Pantokrator. The Father's acceptance of our fast does not result from the act of fasting itself or from any righteousness we bear within ourselves, but from the righteousness inherent in Christ's blessed fast itself, which infinitely surpasses the fast of the Ninevites.


But just as the people of Nineveh fasted together as one, so do we together with one another in Christ. In Him, we form a sacred community of believers who are the Body of Christ. This Body is indeed a "Communion of Saints", Saints perfected in their striving done in unity with the Head of the Body. Within this community, with which I am so unworthy to be united, I find support for my constitutional weakness and succor for my failings. Our unity with one another in the Lord strengthens our wills and gives us hope should we stumble along the Way. All who profess to be believers in Christ need to discover and to share as fully as possible in the fullness of the fellowship of the Saints.


Lest we fail to emphasize it, both Jesus' Baptism and Jonah's watery descent were followed by fasts of the sacred number of forty days. The relationship between Baptism and fasting and the analogy between the "Sign of Jonah" and the mystery of salvation in Christ's death and Resurrection inspired the Church to place the Fast of Nineveh between the Feast of Epiphany and Great Lent. Like God in His verbal icon found in the Book of Jonah, the Church draws together these archetypal themes to instruct Her children using symbol and liturgy in the need to follow the Lord Christ in all things.


(4:1-11) After God had lifted him up to partake in His mystery of salvation, Jonah returns to his sinful self with a vengeance. We, like Jonah, only too easily turn from participation in God's mysteries of grace and loving-kindness to descend once again to lap the vomit of our sinfulness like dogs! Like Jonah as well, we are ever free, by God's design, to renounce repentance at any time, even after receiving great spiritual gifts of His favor. But, thanks be to God, the Lord also doesn't give up on Jonah (or us) that easily. In the plant that springs up in a night to be killed the next night, God gives Jonah an object-lesson in the preciousness of all life in God's eyes. Even the cattle in the city concern the Lord, and "are you not much better than they?" (Mt. 6:26). Like the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jonah begrudges the Father's celebration of his brothers' repentance. We who call ourselves Christians really cannot stand in judgment of poor Jonah though, when we ourselves, chosen to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, lack the charity or the single-heartedness to love God completely and to care for the souls of those around us. We also fail to live up to our calling in "the Sign of Jonah."



On a scriptural canvas painted in symbolic imagery, God presents us with an icon of Christ in the Book of Jonah. But He also shows us ourselves in the people of Nineveh, the ship's mariners, and even Jonah. Whether in the world, the ark of the Church, whether abject evil-doer or blessed Saint, we are all of us sinners, perpetually in need of renewal in the "Sign of Jonah", the glorious restorative power of the Resurrection in Baptism. The Church invites us to fast together in the Body of Christ, not to prove our worthiness or to make restitution, but to become one with Christ in His mystery of salvation and to "be transformed by the renewing of (our) mind, that (we) may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:2).


May God have mercy upon us, be gracious to us, and accept the fast of the Holy Church, as He accepted the fast of the people of Nineveh and spared them. And may our dear Lord also bless us through the prayers of Jonah, the great prophet. Amen.

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