Sunday Homily, 22nd, 2011

From the earliest times, the Church’s theological reflection has considered the prophet Jonah a so-called “type” for Christ. Biblical typology is where an event or person in the Old Testament prefigures a redemptive work of the New Covenant or displays an aspect fulfilled in Christ Jesus. These types include: the Exodus where the Israelites flee through the waters of the Red Sea and become God’s people, which foreshadows Christian Baptism; or the patriarch Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham told by God to be sacrificed, prefiguring the salvific sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross. Jonah then, is a type – a lens through which we view Jesus.

 

 

Unique among many of these types found in Scripture, Jonah is one for whom Christ makes the connection to himself. In Matthew’s Gospel, the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus for an extraordinary sign to prove He teaches with authority. He responds: “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Mt. 12:39-41).

However, when you think about it, just as much as Jonah is like Jesus, he is as much unlike Him. Jonah’s prophecy from a deity foreign to the pagan Assyrians converts an enormous city, while the repentance Jesus preaches alongside Good News is largely rejected in his lifetime. Then there is Jonah’s un-Christ-like reaction to their repentance. What we don’t read in today’s passage is that after the Ninevites repent and God relents in destroying them, the prophet gets angry that they will not be punished. The Lord’s change of plans is testimony to His compassion and mercy that are just as characteristic to God’s goodness as His justice. “Though God hates sin more than any other thing, he loves us poor miserable sinners,” writes St. John Neumann. “He ardently desires the welfare of our souls as if his own happiness depended on it.” Jonah’s narrow, Jewish nationalism wanted vengeance against the oppressive Assyrians. Yet, while Israel was God’s chosen people, the Lord was not bound to the confines of this special relationship. The prophecy preached was not something that belonged to Jonah, but rather, belonged to God – in whose judgment alone it was to carry it out or not.

Just as Jonah is a type for Christ, he is also a type for the first disciples of Jesus. Again, we may think he is their antithesis based on today’s gospel, in which Peter and Andrew, James and John immediately follow Christ when He calls them – unlike Jonah who initially runs from God’s commission. However, later episodes in the gospels go on to describe the Apostles in similar ways to Jonah, the prophet-antihero. There are those predictions of Jesus’ Passion that do not seem to fit in with how the Twelve expect the Messiah to accomplish His mission. St. Peter will even forbid Christ to speak that way and ends up chided. Then, there is the incident at the Samaritan town which will not welcome Jesus as He proceeds to Jerusalem. James and John ask if they can call down fire on the village. Again, Jesus rebukes them for their misguided fervor. What a bunch of little Jonahs the Apostles are!

I suppose it is human nature to want to be insular and exclusive – to take something that is a difference and make it a dividing line. Any group or cause is prone to this. Indie rocker, Carrie Brownstein, writes about how she became disillusioned by the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement she helped found: “When you’re indoctrinated into a scene, there’s this pride that comes with being accepted and understood by people you admire. But the flip side of that is…the elitism that passes itself off as inclusiveness” (“Stumptown Girl,” The NewYorker 1-2-2012).

Recently I experienced just this kind of group exclusion. I started taking an Art History class at the local state University. Most of the traditional students are art education or art majors who have embraced the look of non-conformists – well, at least in a different way than we monks – the first day I realized that my haircut was not nearly asymmetrical enough to fit in there…. Generally when I come into class the majority are lost in the digital solipsism of smart-phone tractor beams. Nevertheless, some do talk to each other. Last week the girl who sits adjacent to me called over a friend of hers who had apparently just added the course. As he came over to take a desk by her he asked the young woman who I was. She replied, “Oh, he’s no one!” Ouch….

Now, I would say I was more amused than offended by this girl’s comment. Yet, it made me consider the cliquishness and dismissive attitudes we can have in the Church. For us too, Jonah can be a negative type. We can take the gift of our call in baptism, and further to monastic life or priesthood, and make it a weapon. This is especially important for us to ponder today, as we are in the middle of the Christian Unity Octave and commemorate the disaster that is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. When it comes to Christians outside of the Catholic Church or those who do not reverence life at all levels, we can easily make it a battle of us against them. Yet this attitude is at odds with what God has revealed about His desire to bring all people into a communion of truth and love.

We, therefore, remember that the gospel message of repentance counts firstly for us in the Catholic Church. Blessed John Paul II wrote: “[T]he Church professes and proclaims conversion. Conversion to God always consists in discovering his mercy…that love which is patient and kind…as only the Creator and Father can be…. Conversion to God is always the fruit of the ‘rediscovery’ of this Father” (Dives in misericordia 13). Realizing our great need for grace makes us more ready to share this gift with others; recognition of faults reminds us how individuals can have difficulty coming to the fullness of truth. We hold this gift in earthen vessels, and it comes from God and not our own ingenuity. As Pope Benedict states: “Faith aspires to a greater unity…. The unity of human beings with God, which at the same time brings about the unity of people with one another, unity with the whole of creation.”

Indeed, Jonah at his best can be our positive type. At the preaching of Jonah, the most unlikely people converted. We pray, then, that all Christians may be one, giving better voice to the Gospel. We may find the sour history between Rome and the Orthodox churches too great, the theological and disciplinary chasm between Catholicism and Protestant communions too vast – and yet Faith tells us it is possible. We may find the pursuit of legislation that protects the life of the unborn as deadlocked and futile – but Faith tells us otherwise. We will not limit the potential goodness of mankind or God’s grace. If Jonah’s march made Nineveh believe, why can’t ours in Washington move willing hearts?

We live in an imperfect world with differences that require complex solutions – but we, like Jonah, must never put limits on God’s gracious will to facilitate oneness of heart and mind, visible oneness in the Body of Christ.

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