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The Sign of Jonah The Prophet
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 the Coptic Orthodox 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.
This booklet is a simple commentary upon the Book of Jonah in light of the Church's liturgical and spiritual understanding of it and its use during the Fast of Nineveh. To that purpose, we ask our Lord Jesus Christ to grant us the blessings of this great prophet through the intercession of our Mother, the blessed Virgin Mary. Amen.
Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me."
But Jonah rose to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (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.
Jonah, for his own part, would not accept his mission of salvation, because it was beyond him to forgive the Ninevites their depredations upon Israel. How, after all, could God expect him to save a nation he despised? Obviously we must distinguish here between Jonah, the prophetic instrument of God's salvation, and Jonah, the sinner, weak, selfish, and vengeful. But we, of course, know only too well in ourselves the painful paradox between the images of Christ we are called to be and the dreadful sinners we actually are. And so, unwilling to fulfill God's request, "Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord."
But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken (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."
Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them.
But Jonah was gone into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, "What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not." (1:5-6).
How vain are all human efforts to escape damnation! How far beyond our power is saving ourselves from death! Of course, we can always run each to our own "god" for help, but the gods of this world are devils, unable to save us. These "saviors" are knowledge which tries in its pride to usurp the place of God, money (or Mammon) which we adore for the false security and empty prestige it gives us instead of God, and human wisdom in which we place our trust and refuse Divine Wisdom which seems like foolishness to us. Since when have any of these saved anyone?
But even as their supplications to their gods could not save the mariners, neither could casting cargo overboard to lighten the ship. In our own case, we too make the mistake of thinking that we can somehow save ourselves, if only we can "lighten the load" of our sins by dispersing our wealth in "good works" to prove our earnestness to God. Such actions, by themselves, can save no one unless they are done with the desire of removing everything that hinders our oneness with God. Wealth in itself is not the source of our unhappiness, rather it is the absence of God from our lives which torments us so. Even if worldly wealth keeps us away from God, merely getting rid of it is no guarantee that our hearts will draw closer to God. The purpose of renunciation is to redirect the entire thrust of our lives so that the love of God becomes our absolute priority.
By the way, we should notice the similarity between the scene described in the passage above in the one we encounter in the Gospels where another great tempest arose while Jesus was sleeping in the ship's hold, and His disciples "came to Him, and awoke Him, saying, 'Master, Master, we perish'" (see Mt. 8:22-27, Mk. 4:35-41, and Lk. 8:22-25). These two scenes are so nearly identical as practically to shout out that Jonah represents Christ here.
And they said every one to his fellow, "Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. (1:7).
In this, however, Jonah differs greatly from Jesus, for although he was a great prophet of God, he was still just a man, a man to whom God's call to save this city seemed loathsome. But he could not escape his fate. Providence actually used his attempted escape to accomplish God's mystical purpose.
Then said they unto him, "Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?"
And he said unto them, "I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, Which hath made the sea and the dry land."
Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, "Why hast thou done this?" For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Then said they unto him, "What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us?" For the sea wrought, and was tempestuous. And he said unto them, "Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
"Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, "We beseech Thee, O Lord, we beseech Thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for Thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased Thee."
So they took up Jonah and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (1:8-17).
In this dramatic passage, God paints us an icon (that is to say, "image") 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.
And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, and said,
"I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell (Sheol or Hades) cried I, and Thou heardest my voice. For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, into the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about; all Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me.
"Then I said, 'I am cast out from Thy sight; yet I will look again upon Thy Holy Temple.' The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about mine head.
"I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me forever: yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.
"When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto Thee, into Thine Holy Temple.
"They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord." (1:17-2:9).
In the prayers preceding the Sanctification of the Sacred Oblations in the Coptic 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).
And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited Jonah upon the dry land.
And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee."
So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." (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.
So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, "Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?"
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that He had said He would do unto them; and He did it not." (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.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, "I pray Thee, O Lord, was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live."
And the Lord said, "Doest thou well to be angry?"
So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
And God said to Jonah, "Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?" And he said, "I do well to be angry, even unto death."
Then said the Lord, "Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left; and also much cattle?" (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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