Words on the Word

Sign of Jonah

Homily given in the abbey church of Corvey on Thursday in the First Week of Lent, at a Nordic Evening organised by the Bonifatiuswerk. You can find the original German text here.

Jonah 3:1-10: And the people of Nineveh believed God.
Luke 11:29-32: No other sign than the sign of Jonah.

It rarely happens in the Gospel that the Lord unconditionally condemns. His openness is amazing. Most of the time he patiently listens to what people have to say. He finds out what is alive in their hearts. Then he leads them to understand, step by step, that their current attitudes, opinions and prejudices need broadening.

All the more impressive are the words we hear today: ‘It is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign. But no other sign will be given it than the sign of Jonah.’

Why is it so terrible to seek a sign? Because we try, thereby, to pull God’s action down onto our level. We would make the eternal God, Lord of the universe, comprehensible; yes, we would like to hold him fast in our notions. A sign is something we can grasp. The living God often acts ungraspably. ‘How can this come about?’ the Virgin asked Gabriel as he announced her vocation. No available notion could correspond to such an absolute and absurdly demanding novelty.

‘I make all things new.’ With these words the risen Lord describes his agency. The signs we are comfortable with, by contrast, are all already old, even if they may seem to us, myopic as we are, terribly fashionable. The only enduringly valid sign, the Gospel proclaims, is the sign of Jonah, who was swallowed up by the sea.

It isn’t a particularly reassuring sign. The Father saw in it a prophecy of Jesus’s sacrifice wrought on the Cross. The Cross has always been, and will always remain, a scandal. We cannot push it out of sight.

The world isn’t as it should be. The world’s shared history with God is a history of suffering. This suffering the Lord assumed. Our glorious Shepherd remains to this day the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world by carrying them. As members of his Body, of holy Church, we take our share in this carrying. When we ourselves were baptised in water, it happened in mystic communion with the death of Jesus.

‘We are always’, wrote Paul, ‘carrying in the body the death of Jesus’. We can never forget this fact. It simply states things as they are. Yet death never has the final word. We carry death so that ‘the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies’ (2 Cor 4:10). This is the basic experience of the Christian condition. It is at once spiritual and corporeal.

Truly, we are dealing with something that is greater than all we have so far experienced, greater than all we can cleverly work out, greater even than the most drastic signs of the times. Amen.