The Sign of Jonah.
The Second Wednesday of Lent.*
Lessons from the feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Jonah 3: 1-10.
• Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-13, 18-19.
• Luke 11: 29-32.
Ember Wednesday of Lent.**
Lessons from the feria, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Exodus 24: 12-18.
• [Gradual] Psalm 24: 17-18.
• III Kings 19: 3-8.
• [Tract] Psalm 24: 17-18, 1-4.
• Matthew 12: 38-50.
3:45 PM 3/13/2019 — Exactly one week ago Lent began, and the Missal presents to us, both in the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel, a name we know well, but probably know very little about: the Prophet Jonah. We all know he got swallowed by a fish, but that's probably all we know. He gets short shrift because his story is one of the shortest books of the bible: 48 verses divided into four very brief chapters. The date of its composition is hard to pin down: anywhere between the Eighth to the first century BC; but, the style of the Hebrew is the same as that used in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which would put it somewhere in the fifth century. Equally contested is the question of whether Jonah was a historical person, or whether the book is a parable. There are certainly a lot of Old Testament parables which do not pretend to be historical accounts; but, they occur mostly in the first five books of the Bible, and don't include the kind of biographical data about the subject that we find in Jonah; even so, our Lord Himself seems to refer to Jonah as a mythical person when, in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, He refers to what He calls “the sign of Jonah.”
But the story of Jonah we all know to a degree. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. God commands him to go the city of Nineveh and preach to them because they had become wicked in God's eyes; but, Jonah wants none of it, and instead catches a boat in Tharsis thinking that God can't find him on the high seas (nothing is said that would indicate that Jonah was a particularly bright man). The ship gets caught in a typhoon; and, the captain, knowing that Jonah is a Jew, pleads with him to call upon his God to save them; but, Jonah doesn't want to open up any lines of communication with God; he's trying to run away from God. So, the crew, in a stereotypical fit of seafaring superstition, conclude that the reason they're caught in a typhoon is because they're harboring a fugitive from God, so they throw him overboard. God causes Jonah to be swallowed up by a great fish, in whose belly he languishes for three days and three nights,—allegorical to the three days and nights our Lord would spend in the tomb—where he finally breaks down and calls upon God to save him. The fish vomits him up on the beach—ironically, not far from the city of Nineveh—and God, once again, repeats His command for Jonah to go there, which is where our first lesson today opens; and, this time he does as God commands. He tells the Ninevites that they have forty days to repent of their evil ways or else God will destroy them; but, it doesn't take forty days. After only one day of preaching, the whole city is converted, and even the king of Nineveh sheds his robes and covers himself in sackcloth to do penance, and that's where our lesson today ends, which is unfortunate. If we were to read on, we would find that this is where the story really gets interesting, because Jonah, after all he had been through, decided that he was entitled to see some fireworks.
Now, from the outset, Jonah is portrayed as a bitter and angry man;—we have no idea why—and, while you'd think that his experience in the belly of the fish would have cured him of that and made him a little more humble, it didn't. He tries to tell God that the reason he ran away in the first place was because he suspected all along that God was a soft touch and wasn't going to follow through on his threat against the city. He completely glosses over the fact that the Ninevites made a very dramatic repentance. He sits down under a tree where he can see the city to see if God will destroy it after all; and, when it isn't destroyed, he gets depressed and wants to die. God reaches out to Jonah and wants to dialog about it, but Jonah refuses to talk to Him. There's some highly symbolic bits after that, but that's pretty much where the book ends.
It's an odd story, and its abrupt ending causes us to want to ask some questions, such as why Jonah feels the way he does at the end. There might be a historical reason: Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire, which was a long-time enemy of Israel. Isaiah denounced Assyria as “the rod of God's anger” (10: 5) and “the overwhelming scourge” (28: 15); Jeremiah warned his people about the powerful pagan foe (2: 18, 36; 50: 17f); the prophets Hosea, Micah and Nahum all reminded the Israelites about this bitter enemy of God's people; so, maybe Jonah was angry that God would even give the Ninevites a chance to repent.
When I was in the seminary there was one faculty member who was very liberal, and who had set himself to the task of making sure that any seminarian who gave evidence of being traditional never become a priest. He never succeeded because it was a conservative seminary and he was the token liberal, so no one really listened to him. And each year we would have to sit down with each priest on the faculty and go through an evaluation process; but, for him, the evaluation was just a matter of going through the motions, because he had already decided, before the evaluation even began, that you were no good. Two years after I was ordained he left the priesthood. I don't think it was because I was ordained; it was probably because he was, like Jonah, a bitter and angry man by nature, and those kinds of people are never happy no matter what they're doing. If you've ever worked for someone like that, you may have had a similar experience.
The story of Jonah is, of course, a lesson about repentance and God's mercy, which is why we read it during Lent; but, there's more to it than that. Jonah is not an uncommon type of person. He's angry at the world, and for reasons that may or may not make sense to anyone but him. And, while he goes through the motions, giving lip-service to the idea that he wants things to change, in reality, he doesn't; because, if things were to change, he would have nothing more to be angry about, and wouldn't know what to do with himself. And, as distasteful as it sounds, there are times when we're all tempted to go down that acrimonious road. Maybe we're older now, and most of our friends are gone, and we feel that our families don't pay enough attention to us; our children have families of their own now, and we're no longer the center of their attention. Things are not what they used to be: the neighborhood has changed, the parish has changed, nothing is familiar anymore. We watch the news and see the world falling apart, or we get mad at the Pope or the Church for all the obvious reasons, all coupled with the usual aches and pains that come with growing old, and all the things we used to be able to do that we can't anymore.
There is a remedy to all this, of course, and that's prayer. That is what I think is the real message of the Book of Jonah. It ends on a low note because Jonah, in his bitterness, cuts off his dialog with God. It would be nice to have the story end up a redemption story, like the Book of Job: bad things happen to Job just like they do to Jonah, but Job never stops praying; and, because he never stops praying, he and God are reconciled.
There's a reason why it's important that the Book of Jonah ends the way it does. Life is often disappointing, and how we respond to that disappointment is crucial. In the midst of all his tragedies, Job never stopped praying, never stopped trusting that God would, somehow, make everything alright in the end, which He did. Jonah did stop praying and, as a result, his anger became his only companion. In the end, that was all he had left.
The season of Lent is, as we all know, a time to take stock of our spiritual lives; and, if we're harboring some sort of pent up anger within us, for whatever reason, we have to let go of it. And that can't be done without prayer. The choice, like it was for Jonah, is up to us.
* Because Lent began on a Wednesday, today is the 2nd Wednesday. Cf. the post here under the heading "Hey, aren't you off by a week?" for an explanation of how the days of the liturgical calendar are rendered on this site as opposed to how they are designated in the Roman Missal.
** In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, at the beginning of the four seasons of the year, the fast days known as "Ember Days" thank God for blessings obtained during the past year and implore further graces for the new season; and, their importance in the Church was formerly very great. They are fixed on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of specific weeks in their respective seasons: after the First Sunday of Lent for Spring, after Whitsunday (Pentecost) for Summer, after the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14th) for Autumn, and after the Third Sunday of Advent for Winter. At one time, the Ember Days were obligatory days of fasting; this requirement was dropped in the Missal of St. John XXIII in 1962, but violet vestments are sill worn on Ember Days even when they occur outside the seasons of Advent and Lent, with the exception of the Ember Days that occur during the Octave of Pentecost.
The significance of the Ember Days as days of voluntary fasting is multiple: not only are they intended to consecrate to God both the liturgical seasons and the various seasons in nature, they also serve as a penitential preparation for those preparing for the Holy Priesthood. Ordinations in the extraordinary form generally take place on the Ember Days, and the Faithful are encouraged to pray on these days for good priests.