By Fr. Antonious Henein
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."