You know that we are approaching the Holy Forty Days Fast (i.e., Lent). Here the words are intensely resolute and directive. The words “forty days” have a special importance because we are approaching a death that Christ went through for the sake of all humanity. It is in other words Christ’s death in exchange for the destruction of humanity. All of humanity was under threat of destruction and annihilation in no lesser way in Christ’s day than when the world was annihilated by the forty days flood, which came on it because of the escalation of sin at that time.
The impending crisis led the Blessed Son to leave His glory, put on humanity, and suffer to save the world. He offered Himself for destruction in place of humanity, then rose from the dead, so that His death and resurrection would become an endless source of repentance and salvation. He became a sign for whoever desires to see it – not just so that men could have a sign from heaven: “We wish to see a sign from you” (Matt 12: 38), but so that they could inherit heaven itself. It was Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Forty Days Fast the Lord undertook for the sake of all humanity, that was the payment for every shortcoming in piety or fasting.
Those of you who are church men and women will know from the hymns of the feast of the Divine Manifestation 1, that Baptism is only completed by total immersion in water three times, as in the story of Jonah’s descent into the depths of the sea. For this reason, we see that Christ’s anointing to serve came at the moment he rose out of the water, as did the encouragement to commence the forty days fast. If we skip ahead in time, or follow the Church ritual, we enter immediately into the week of suffering, then of death and resurrection.
Thus the occurrence of the Jonah Fast before the Holy Forty Days Fast contains many meanings and symbols, among which are the immersion (baptism), and death on the cross.
Returning to Jonah, we ask: who is the man Jonah? He is a Hebrew prophet to whom the Lord spoke:
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city …” (Jonah 1: 1, 2).
Jonah, though, as the Scripture says, “rose to flee” to Tarshish to escape from the Face of the Lord. As he left, the sea was stirred up.
The Book of Jonah does not tell us more. The lack of explanation in the books of the Bible does not imply any inadequacy on the part of the writer or the writing, but is allowed to give the reader room for deep thought and contemplation. By this we may grasp things that cannot be communicated through words. I hope the listener or reader will mark these words, because there are many who complain about the obscurity of some parts of the Old Testament, or even the New Testament.
The Voice of the Lord came to Jonah saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah fled and descended into the depths of the sea (the whale’s belly) and remained there for three days. According to the Gospel, Christ descended into the abyss three days and three nights, and in Jonah’s words, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (Jonah 2:2). This makes the book of Jonah both practical and visionary; every word and sentence firmly points to Christ. We can consider Jonah to be like John the Baptist in the New Testament, who cried out “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Jonah is a living symbol of Christ. Christ’s baptism led Him into the holy forty days, and the forty days led to the cross, and then to the resurrection. This is exactly the same as Jonah descending into the waters prior to going to Nineveh to preach repentance, where he proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in forty days. This contains a hidden sign that forty days were significant in God’s plans and that was in fact the period of time set for destruction (the Flood). In the fast, the Lord Himself completed that forty-day period for the sake of the whole of humanity.
As for the flight of Jonah, it is apparent that he found the message difficult to bear. But after he had descended into the waters and remained there for three days something happened to him. The whale vomited him on the shore and the Lord repeated the original instruction, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). But this time Jonah obeyed Him. Spending three days in the depths, it seems, reformed his attitude towards Nineveh.
Something mystical happened here; Jonah’s descent into the water – his baptism – was in fact a passing through death and resurrection on behalf of Nineveh.
How wonderful are these powerful signs and how magnificent is the Church that, with the right touch, can designate a fast or a special feast! These definitions are inspirational and visionary to whoever wants to listen or see, and who are not like the Scribes and Pharisees, who asked the Lord to show them a sign whilst ignoring the signs that had already been given.
The Church brings these Scriptures into full view during these days so that we can absorb them for ourselves: first from Jonah, and secondly from Nineveh, because Jonah and Nineveh have two messages for our lives. Jonah speaks to us of the Christ Who came from afar and Nineveh severely reproaches us: “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it … An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt 12:41, 39).
“This generation” does not merely mean the times of Christ’s generation, as most who explain it say, but “this generation” also means every evil and adulterous generation. Every generation has the evildoer and adulterer and is therefore “this generation.” Christ’s generation was the Apostle’s generation and is the generation that has continued in us and through us right up till now. During the Divine Liturgy, you hear the priest say, “Remember, O Lord, Your only holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Then, during the “Assembly,” you hear the recitation of the Patriarchs’ names right up till the most recent. This is because the Church has continued from Christ and the Apostles up till this present day. It is one generation, Christ’s generation, designated as the generation that will witness to Christ until the last day of humanity’s history. It is an extended generation that is pure, holy and good.
As for the other generation, it is the generation of Cain, the generation of Judas, the crucifying generation, and it is also a generation that extends till the present day. Judas and the crucifier still exist in it.
“An evil and adulterous generation” seem harsh words, but they are not so. It is an evil and adulterous generation because it has departed from God. When you hear of evil and adultery in the Gospel then understand that he means a spiritual state and not a physical state (even the most evil of people, if they have a conscience at all, may be changed to holiness in their physical state, by a thrust of the sword of God’s word.) But spiritual evil is to worship something other than God, to throw oneself into the arms of the devil. This is like marital infidelity, because Christ took the Church as a bride to Himself and considered Himself the bridegroom of the Church, as the Apostle Paul said: “For I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband” (2 Cor 11:2 RSV).
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” Does this generation want God to send it fire from heaven? Or send manna from heaven for it to eat and be satisfied? Did he not offer them food in the miracle of the five loaves and two fish (the gospel on the third day of the Jonah Fast)? Let us beware, because signs do not increase faith but faith is itself a sign! Remember the gospel: “He did not do many mighty works there (in Nazareth) because of their unbelief” (Matt 13:58). Christ cannot give you a sign in your life if it is not preceded by faith.
“But no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” An evil and adulterous generation is one that will not benefit from any sign from heaven. The only sign it needs is the awakening of its conscience. Its sign is the sign of the prophet Jonah, the sign of death, because logically Jonah should have died in the whale’s belly. And Jonah did die, he died and the Lord resurrected him. But for whom was his death? What a beautiful death we die when we die daily for others’ sake! O Jonah, the prophet of salvation, how beautiful you are, who died for three days and nights, demonstrating the atonement for your sin and the sins of great Nineveh!
Western analysts claim that the book of Jonah is fictitious. Those who are more open-minded say that Jonah represents the eldest son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because when Nineveh was saved, Jonah was saddened like the eldest son who would not enter the house.
No, this is not the case! The profound truth is that Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he did not want to proclaim its destruction, because he knew for sure that God is patient and slow to anger and would inevitably forgive them in the end. He therefore fled to avoid facing two difficulties: the pain of having to prophesy destruction, which was extremely difficult for a kind soul, and the problem that he would appear to be the one criticising a foreign people after God relented from His anger. But where could Jonah flee from God? God always pursues the fleeing servant. Any man can flee from God, except for the one who has heard His voice and accepted His holy name.
According to the Coptic Orthodox concept, Jonah is not the eldest son who was saddened at Nineveh’s redemption, but he is a type of Christ. He is the outstanding prophet of salvation, who is not less than other Old Testament prophets, but probably greater than them in gentleness and finesse, one comparable to Job, who also, like Jonah, was wronged.
Jonah could not bear to preach destruction. In the Gospel according to St. Luke there is an interesting, but very mystical, allusion that reveals a relationship between the warning of Nineveh’s people about the great danger they faced and the death that Jonah had faced for their sake: “For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation” (Lk 11:30).
Thus the people of Nineveh knew that Jonah had passed through the suffering of death in the belly of the whale for three days and then risen for the sake of their salvation!
The Gospel here means that, as Jonah, in his person and not only through his mission, was a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of man also, in Himself, is a sign to this generation, through His death and resurrection.
Brothers, it is very difficult to say much about Jonah’s experience during those three days and nights, but we know for sure the impact of Christ’s three days and nights in the abyss and His resurrection: “He led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8). “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them: … If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (Jn 20:22, 23). We also listen to the priest saying, “As You have given the disciples the absolution to forgive sins….” So this absolution has continued forgiving all sins.
Jonah went and preached to the people of Nineveh to spare them from God’s anger, through the suffering of his death and his preaching! It seems that he told them what had happened to him.
We may be shocked when we look at what happened in Nineveh. As soon as the king knew what had happened to Jonah, and heard his preaching, he rose from his throne, took off his royal clothes, laid aside his pomp, beauty and vain pride, and put on sackcloth. All the people put on sackcloth, which is a robe made of goats’ hair, very rough on the skin. He ordered that food should be withheld from everyone, old and young, even the infant at the mother’s breast, and even all the animals. How terrible! It is as if the whole of creation is included in Nineveh’s three days of repentance.
A city with one eighth of a million inhabitants, all of whom repented, and the Lord forgave them because of the determined collective repentance and the astute leadership of that just and conscientious king, who was able, through his wisdom, to avert the sentence of death from his people. What a wonderful example of the concern and wisdom of the shepherd!
Also, how wide your embrace, dear Lord? It is truly a great wonder! A heretical nation that believed in God as a result of one lecture!
So, it is not because of a sign in heaven or earth that humankind will repent and have its sins forgiven, but through humility, fasting, prayer and a meekness of heart before the Omnipotent God!
If only every sinner would realize that his sins are never too great or too many for God’s forgiveness. If the Church only knew what collective repentance should be like, it would sit with its children in sackcloth and humility before God until it attracted forgiveness from heaven, and times of refreshment would swiftly come from heaven as Peter the Apostle mentioned (Acts 3:19)!
Dearly beloved, if the times of refreshment are hindered, then the fault is ours. Nineveh was striding swiftly and surely towards the pit of destruction, but through taking a courageous and honest stand in response to the warning of judgment, it managed to obtain for itself a pardon from heaven.
Oh sinner what do you need? Do you need sackcloth? Do you need dust? What do you need?
If repentance came through silver and gold, if it required a ladder high enough to reach heaven, if it required some physical, intellectual or psychological effort, terrific wisdom or great knowledge to bring down Christ from heaven or to raise him from the pit, we would have to say that repentance is difficult. But Nineveh’s king, people, women, children, and cattle knew the quick way to safety. What is hindering us, making us turn right and left, asking for the advice of old and young alike, while the door of salvation stands open before us and multitudes from every people, tongue and nation are already entering it!
Nineveh sets us an example of how simple and sincere repentance is able to open up the doors of heaven and bring forth a total amnesty for the inhabitants of a whole city, without exception, a city which the Bible tells us did not know its right from its left.
Dear brethren, as we approach the holy forty days we need hearts like those of the king of Nineveh and his people. The mere mention of the fasting cattle bent over their troughs is a reproach, because within my own soul, I find vicious haughty beasts with the conceit of a lion among deer. How many instincts I have within my soul that need to be humiliated by hunger and sackcloth! The sight of Nineveh’s cattle standing in pain by their troughs and the oxen fallen with hunger scares my desires and pleasures. O city of the Lord, how full my soul is with these things! How wonderful it is for my soul to sit like Nineveh in holy sackcloth and ashes! During these holy forty days it is good for you, my soul, to bind all your fierce, animal instincts, and not to think you are the daughter of the great city that knows its right from its left, because sin is not overcome except by him who has tasted that which Nineveh tasted!
Today, dearly beloved, I am revealing to you the mystery of heaven, pulling back its veil. A king leaves his throne, and through beautiful repentance in dust and ashes, lays hold of salvation and a heavenly pardon.
Believe it or not, the hour for salvation and the day of hope never comes by chance. If you desire salvation soon, if you want times of deliverance, then learn from Nineveh’s lesson today, it is a lesson for all generations: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Nineveh.”
The sign of Nineveh is not in any way inferior to the opening of the eyes of the blind, feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish, or changing the water to wine.
The sign of Nineveh surpassed every sign except for Christ’s death and resurrection. The distinctive of the sign of Nineveh is that it was led to repentance through the call of a prophet. The voice that calls us now is greater than that of any prophet.
Jonah’s call was to death or repentance, but Christ offers us His death, a living power, charged with life, and able to resurrect us from sin and death!
Today, dearly beloved, is the day of Nineveh and its noble prophet, the prophet savior who claimed that the roaring of the sea was because of his own sin, and did not blame it on Nineveh.
Jonah demands that every servant, every preacher and every priest see the sin of his people and his city, and through his pain, his grief and effort, even in his death, find a ransom for his children.
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the whale and said:
“I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me: out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood (of death) was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence (Compare to Christ’s words on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”(Matt 27: 46); how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ [Compare to: “and he (Christ) will be raised on the third day”(Matt 20:19)]. The waters closed in over me (a psalm recited on Good Friday), weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:1-9).
This is how we should pray in our troubles. Let your complaint be a complaint of thanksgiving: “You accepted your pains O Lord, and allowed my trouble and made me undergo your stick. Bitterness is in my throat. The bitterness entered my heart and soul.” And as Jeremiah the prophet said: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly” (Jer 4:19). This gratitude in pain, thanksgiving in grievance is indeed a strange way to speak.
Jonah’s prayer is a new psalm for those on their way to Golgotha, one that is surely echoed in heaven by all the spirits that are justified in glory. It is a new stairway by which we may ascend and catch a glimpse of the glory that awaits us!
Surely this is how the kingdom of heaven may be seized, through prayer, like Jonah’s prayer in the depth of the Pit.
This day, beloved, is a day of repentance that causes the saints to lay hold of their rights and the heritage of the Son of God.
Today embodies the new concept of spreading the gospel through sacrifice, even by shedding our blood.
Today is calling to the preacher to follow that path of salvation, he himself and his people, the shepherd and the flock together.
Nineveh portrays for us the meaning and the fine detail behind reconciliation with the countenance of God!
People of God, small and great, young and old, sick and healthy, here before us is the sign of Nineveh.
Those who spread the gospel and preach in church, here is Jonah’s example to be followed today. How did he fare? What became of him? Before commencing the three days and three nights in the tribulation of death, Jonah was no use to either Nineveh or himself; he was on his way to Tarshish to eat carobs with the pigs.
But, having prayed from the depth of his tribulation and the horror of death, we see Jonah enduring the ordeal till the end, and becoming Jonah the preacher in Christ’s image. His death was counted him as a sacrifice and Jonah was honored through his tribulation. He became the only prophet who Christ used as an example of His death and resurrection and he became a sign to those who repent!
Credit and Attribution
Father Matthew the Poor was the Hegumen and Spiritual Father of the Monastery of Abba Macarius in the wilderness of Shiheet, Wadi el-Natroun, Egypt. This article was originally published by the St. Mark Monthly Review, a journal published by the monastery, and is reprinted here with express permission from both Fr. Matthew the Poor and St. Mark’s Monthly Review.
- The Feast of Divine Manifestation refers to the Feast of Theophany or Epiphany. In the Church of Alexandria, this Feast was historically celebrated alongside the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity as one Feast: the Feast of the Divine Manifestation. ↩