February 29th, 2012
The Sign of Jonah
I: Jonah the reluctant prophet: a sign of Repentance, Engagement, and Trust
Throughout the world on this Lenten weekday, the readings at Mass speak of Jonah, the reluctant prophet sent by God to preach to the people of the distant pagan city of Nineveh. The first reading the Book of Jonah tells of his preaching, and in the Gospel Jesus speaks of his own preaching as a fulfilment of the sign of Jonah.
We can learn from the sign of Jonah, a sign of repentance, of engagement, and of trust.
Jonah teaches us about repentance, for that was the message God called him to preach to the people of the great city of Nineveh. There was much in their society and in their hearts that needed to be changed, and Jonah's message was a call for that change of heart. Of course, Jonah himself needed to repent, for in his willfulness, the source of all sin, he tried to flee to the ends of the earth rather that fulfill the mission on which God had sent him, because in his religious complacency he did not agree with God's plan of mercy for the unbelievers; he did not want their pagan society to be rescued.
Jonah speaks to us of engagement with the wider world. He was comfortable among the believers, but God called him to move out beyond his safe world of devotion to walk the alien streets of the great city of Nineveh. It was to avoid that call to engagement with the wider world that he tried to flee to the ends of the earth, until God through a great storm on the sea brought him back to his mission to Nineveh.
The sign of Jonah also is one of trust. The prophet's first failure was a refusal to trust God's plan for him. He needed to let go of his own prophetic agenda, and follow God's will. Jonah, despite his reluctance, was wildly successful in his preaching: all the people of Nineveh repented immediately - which did not please Jonah. The result of his mission was clearly not dependent upon his enthusiasm or skill: he had to come to learn that it is the provident love of God that brings about conversion, not the talents or zeal of the prophet. We need to learn that too.
II: The Sign of Jonah Today: Repentance, Engagement, and Trust
The Sign of Jonah: Repentance
The message of Jonah is the same as is found in the first words of both John the Baptist and Jesus as they began their ministry: Repent. This challenge is basic for our life in Christ, and is especially emphasized during Lent. One of the prayers said when ashes are bestowed on Ash Wednesday is "Repent and believe in the Gospel." We sometimes forget that. We are called to preach repentance to this world, and we are called, of course, first to experience repentance ourselves.
This is why we need to reflect not only on the message but on the messenger. God can use any prophet, and Jonah himself is very much in need of repentance. The messenger needs first to repent and only then to preach the message of repentance to this generation. We preach not only by the words we speak but by the lives we lead. Our ability to be effective instruments of God in our world is inhibited to the degree that we do not ourselves live with integrity. A wise person once said, "the Gospel loses credibility if conscience tethers the tongue." If there is anything in our lives that will block the light of Christ, we need humbly to attend to that before we can proclaim the Gospel to others. God uses weak servants like Jonah, like the apostles, like you and me - and we always have to preach first to ourselves.
Some practical implications:
1. Individually, get to confession. To repeat – get to confession. Remember, saying to a priest, “Bless me Father for I have sinned” is much better than saying, “Bless me Father my neighbour has sinned.”
This is the first gift of Our Lord to his disciples after the resurrection. The sacrament of reconciliation needs to be widely available, and we all need to experience it fruitfully and frequently, as a basic way of being made ready for our mission as disciples. That is another reason why we will always need more priests: we need more confessors.
2. As a community, in a spirit of repentance we must honestly be attentive to our failures to live up to what God expects of us. A culture of communal humility is the foundation for our effectiveness in bringing Christ to this world.
The Sign of Jonah: Engagement
We need to be engaged, engaged with this society of ours, which may often seem like the great city Nineveh, distant and antagonistic to our faith. We need engagement, bold engagement. Not for us the flight of Jonah.
St. Luke, who reports the message of Our Lord in today's Gospel about the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah, speaks in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, of the way in which the early disciples boldly and joyfully engaged with the world not of Nineveh but of ancient Rome.
They did so filled with hope and joyful energy as they sought to bring the message of the Lord to that world. We need to do the same today, with creativity, energy, and faith.
People often speak of a secularization of society, and of a receding of the tide of faith.
Some practical implications:
We need to learn about our faith, by studying it more fully, so that we may more effectively engage in this world of ours with a sympathetic understanding of the struggles people face, an understanding which is illuminated by the vision of the Gospel. This is where the social teachings of the Church can guide us.
Engagement with this world is essential. This is why in our own community of faith we need to strengthen the formation and training of people who help us to reach out and evangelize. It is important for all of us to encourage people to respond to the various vocations of lay ministry, the diaconate, religious life and the priesthood.
We value Catholic education at every level, including universities, an education in which students are offered a vision of the greater purpose in life. It is holy wisdom that is most needed if our society is to be what God invites it to be. Life is more than a meaningless struggle, in which we are simply lost in busyness. We are called to be people with a purpose, and so we if we are effectively to engage in our society, we all need to learn to use the gift of reason within the context of faith which reveals the plan of divine providence within which our secular society is set.
Our Christian life, within our parishes, and also when it is shaped by the various movements and societies within the Church, needs always to be nurtured by the gifts of word and sacrament, and by our love for one another, but it must always reach outward, towards engagement with the world. If we circle the wagons and become comfortably enclosed within ourselves in an illusion of devotion, either individually or as a community, then we will fall back into the fault of Jonah before he met the whale. Our life of faith always needs to end in outreach. Faith and hope reach fulfilment in active charity. A key norm I always use in assessing any initiative in the Church is: does it include the elements of head, heart, and hands - clear teaching to give it direction according to the Gospel, zealous devotion, and practical effect in serving others.
We need to be engaged, and as a community of faith we cannot let our horizon be limited by our own comfortable world here in North America. We must be attentive to people around the world, especially those who are suffering, and most especially our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering persecution, and all who are suffering that way. This is one reason why we should always be attentive to those who are refugees, thinking also of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, refugees from Herod in Egypt.
It is above all the mission of lay people to be engaged in every aspect of the world of this age, this secular world, in which we live. Those of us who are ordained are called to offer spiritual nourishment in word and sacrament to the lay people of the Church, but it is they who are most immediately engaged in evangelizing this world, by their direct involvement in every aspect of it, to help to leaven this world with the vision of the Gospel and to make it a place more in harmony with the will of God. That message of engagement is to who we all are, if we are to become the sign of Jonah for our world today.
The Sign of Jonah: Trust
As we reflect on the sign of Jonah, we need to consider not only repentance and engagement, but also our need to trust in God's providence. We are called to action and engagement, but it is not our activity that ultimately brings about conversion. In the story of Jonah, we see him revealed as a most reluctant prophet, who does not even want his mission to succeed. The people of Nineveh are converted because of him to a certain extent, when he finally follows God's will and preaches, but you can almost say that they are really converted despite of him.
Just as we are called to be faithful messengers of repentance for ourselves and for those whom we meet day by day, and as we are called to get beyond the comfort of our own lives and engage in the secular world around us, so too are we called to recognize that our mission will be not because of any skill or strength or anything else that we have, but because of the grace of God. We are simply servants.
That is why as we engage in the new evangelization, although we need to think clearly and plan carefully and energetically produce various ways of reaching out to this world, we must ultimately recognize the power of Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God who will bring fruitfulness to our work, just as it was not Jonah's preaching, for he was indeed a reluctant prophet, and not his personal conviction, but rather the power of God that touched the hearts of the people of Nineveh.
I often have recalled, as over the years I have tried to develop all kinds of vocation approaches to encourage those who are called to be priests, that Our Lord gave us only one direction: Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into the harvest. Then our efforts will be fruitful, in God's own way and God's own time. A practical implication of this is that we need to root our efforts in prayer. Our action must flow from adoration. It is no accident that vocations flourish where the practice of Eucharistic adoration is widespread.
That is why Bishop Sheen recommended that every priest spend one hour every day in adoration before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That also explains why the Church comes alive in fruitful activity, not fruitless busyness, when Christians individually and as a community, take the time for prayer. It is why I want Eucharistic Adoration to become a regular part of the life of all of our parishes. It is trust in our provident God and surrender to His will that is the foundation for fruitful engagement with the world.
This is the purpose of Lectio Divina: to become immersed in the word of God, and to encounter Our Lord through the praying of the sacred scriptures. We move out from the house of the Word of God on our daily mission of evangelization, and return each day to be nourished once more.
We must also be nourished at the table of the Lord through the Holy Eucharist. The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation for our mission of evangelization, both as individuals and as a community, and the daily celebration of the Eucharist provides many people with the still point around which their busy lives revolve. Our celebration of the liturgy, and our disposition to the experience of God's grace through His gift of the liturgy, allows us to be faithful and fruitful in our mission in this world. So we need to be attentive, to celebrate the liturgy of the Church with a humble spirit, to be attentive to preaching, and to music. In our liturgy, as in every aspect of our experience of God, we are invited to appreciate beauty - beauty of language, of music, and of art and architecture - as a way in which we are disposed to experience God, and in which those who do not share the gift of faith can be invited to approach God.
Fruitful action follows from adoration, because adoration and prayer are a sign of our dependence upon the providence of God and it is God alone who brings about the conversion of our own hearts and the conversion of this world.
III: Make a joyful duty our sacrifice of Praise
On this Lenten day in which we are presented by the Church with the sign of Jonah, we can learn about our life of discipleship, as individuals and as a community of faith on a journey through time, through the ages, in the world of this age, this secular society.
The sign of Jonah calls us to repentance, to engagement with the world, and to the trust in the providence of God that underlies everything. That spirit of trust can lead us to a further gift, in the midst of our struggles, one not enjoyed by Jonah, the grumpy prophet. It is the gift seen in the great saints, as they struggled with problems far worse than those that can so often absorb us, and depress us, and fill us with anxiety. It is the gift of joy.
I think of St Thomas More, facing a world in which the evil seemed triumphant, if considered within the narrow perspective of his own age. But his sense of divine providence, developed over years of prayerful fidelity, gave him the deep joy that strengthened him and those around him. I think of St Theresa of Avila, the great reformer who was so serene in her trust in God that she could joyfully overcome the immense challenges to her reform. And there is the great apostle of Rome, St Philip Neri, who preached the good news, in the midst of enormous difficulties, and was able to touch the hearts of people in a world that had lost its way, and particularly the hearts of the young, because of his joyful trust in God's provident grace.
So too, for all of us, as we are guided by the sign of Jonah to repentance, engagement, and trust:
Then hear, O gracious Savior, accept the love we bring,
That we who know your favour, may serve you as our king;
And whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill
We'll triumph through our sorrows, and rise to bless you still:
To marvel at your beauty, and glory in your ways,
And make a joyful duty, our sacrifice of praise.