The phrase “the sign of Jonah” was used by Jesus in the Gospels as a typological metaphor for His death, burial, and resurrection. The gospel of Matthew makes it clearer; Matthew says: “For as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man will be, three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). As we know, the season of Lent is a period in which we journey with Christ in His temptations and His fast, contemplating His sorrowful passion on the way to Calvary and death on the cross in order to celebrate with utmost joy the Easter festival. Hence, it would not be out of place to say that the season of Lent and Easter reflect the sentiment of the sign of Jonah. And since “the Holy Eucharist is the memorial of the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ” (cf. CCC 1330), therefore, Christ happens to be telling us that no other sign would be given to us apart from Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, in this Penitential Period.
This Penitential Period offers us the opportunity to repent and turn to God, just as the Ninevites did when they heard the preaching of Jonah. As the First reading (cf. Jonah 3:1-10) puts it: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” Nineveh was the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire. This city was used by Assyrian kings as their primary location to rule their territories. Around 631 B.C., the Assyrians dominated many kingdoms that were located in the Middle Eastern region of the world. In fact, they were the political enemies of the Israelites at that time in history, for they also attacked and dealt with the Israelites. They worshipped false gods; put differently, they were pagans. However, when they heard the preaching of Jonah, together with their king, they believed God, proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth and ashes. Little wonder in today’s Gospel Reading (cf. Luke 11:29-32), Christ used this pagan territory who repented immediately they heard Jonah to criticize the Israelites of his time, who believed they were God’s chosen people; instead of repenting, they looked for a sign.
Apparently, we live in an age of signs and wonders. It appears that the number of miracles achieved by a “man of God” equates his number of followers. The sign of Jonah is a serious lesson for us all today. Do we go about looking for signs and wonders, paying little attention to the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of our Christian life? Do we utilize this season for repentance or do we take it for granted? If we go after signs and wonders and do not utilize this period of forty days for repentance, on the judgement day, the non-Catholics who would make heaven but did not have the opportunity we have now, would probably stand and criticize us, for they made use of the little opportunity they had and gained salvation; whereas, we who had the basic opportunity misused it.
Therefore, the ashes we received last week on Ash Wednesday should enable us to understand the true meaning of repentance in this Lenten period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, just as the Ninevites did, and praying with today’s Psalmist (cf. Psalm 50(51):3-4,12-13,18-19) “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin…”
May the good Lord continually fill us with his grace this period and grant us the strength to persevere in our Lenten resolution, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
© Fr. Chinaka Justin Mbaeri, OSJ