Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2020.
The story of Jonah is one we all know so well that thinking of it as food for our Lenten journey might be difficult. The story begins by telling us that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amit′tai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nin′eveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’” But instead of the obedience of Our Lady, Blessed Mary, who despite having questions about how to cooperate with God, nonetheless answered God, “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word,” Jonah fled. He fled not to Christ, as we are always to do when faced with temptation. Rather, Jonah fled not to, but from, the Lord. Confronted by the Light of God’s guidance, by His Word as a lantern under our feet, and a light unto our paths, Jonah chose instead to turn to his shadows and dwell in them. He chose to pretend his conscience did not hear God’s call. He pretended to forget God’s law.
Jonah fled by boat, and while on the boat, the great wind of the demons made for a mighty tempest on the sea. His conscience began to gnaw at him, and he offered himself up, to be thrown off the boat. Better to become suicidal than to simply say yes to God, Jonah evidently concluded. God saw all this, for His eyes are always upon those who fear Him—and, deep down, Jonah did fear the Lord, deep down, Jonah was in awe of God’s majesty and power, despite his attempts at avoidance—and taking control of the great fish, God’s working of love and protection kept Jonah in the belly of the great fish three days and three nights. And during these three days and three night, Jonah prayed to God—when left to his own devices and free-will, Jonah filled with pride and chose his own will not God’s will; but put into a three-day, three-night time-out by God, Jonah remembered that he was a creature, and God creator of all. His prayer while in the belly of the whale deserves to be heard this day:
“I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Indeed, deliverance does belong to the Lord. And this refrain is taken up into the third Psalm, which reads, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord, thy blessing be upon thy people!” And after this glorious prayer by Jonah, upon being vomited out of the fish upon the dry land—and vomiting is indeed a rich metaphor for what it means to purge our sinful ways—Jonah again heard the word of the Lord; and this time, he began to imitate Our Lady’s “Let it be.” He arose and went to Ninevah, according to the Word of the Lord. And in the city, he cried, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” And in a great surprise to Jonah, the people of Ninevah believed him, and began to repent of their sinful ways. And because they were honest about themselves—because they were reality-based, which is another word for “humility”—God did not destroy the city, but continued to keep it afloat in the ocean of His grace.
And yet, instead of rejoicing, Jonah was exceedingly displeased, and he was angry. His prayer to God takes a remarkable turn: “I knew that Thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.” But then, “Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Again, suicidal! And to prove his petulance, out of the city he went and sat under a plant God made for him out of His love to provide shade. Then to prove again His power, the plant withered the next day from a God-appointed worm. Again in anger Jonah asked for suicide.
Brothers and sisters, it is fair to say that Jonah was a hot mess. He knew God’s will, He knew God’s love, He knew God’s power, and was constantly fighting it, then embracing it in odd ways, and the fighting, embracing, back and forth. Now we might find the story of Jonah comical as to be a farce. And yet, brothers and sisters, how far away from Jonah are we really, in our lives? Are not we closer to Jonah than we might care to admit? Saint Paul wrote these words to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Is this not us? Are not we, too, a hot mess?
The appropriate response to recognizing this difficult truth, revealed to us by God’s grace through the shining light of His Son Jesus on the Cross, is the response of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Church turned the words of the tax collector in a prayer that is now ancient, called the “Jesus Prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. There is nothing more that needs to be said this Lent than that; no need to make it more complicated or qualified than those simple words. For if we make it more complicated and qualified, our prayer is not the prayer of the tax collector, but of the Pharisee. Let us this Lent, held up by God’s love in the ocean of His grace, not even lift up our eyes to heaven, but beat our breast, and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”