(This is Neil.) In his current “Life in Christ” column, the Orthodox priest and exegete John Breck looks at the Book of Jonah (I posted on Jonah a couple of weeks ago here). You will probably already be familiar with Jonah as a “type” of Christ – St Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “As Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Fr Breck goes on to tell us that the “sign of Jonah” discloses the extension of God’s redemption to the entire world, Israel and Nineveh alike, all of which is called to repent in response to the proclamation of Jonah (much, as we saw, to the chagrin of the “reluctant prophet,” and, occasionally, to our own discomfort). We may all, Fr Breck says, “turn from and reject the deception of idolatry and the lure of sinful and corrupting behavior, in order to welcome and embrace the One who comes to proclaim and to offer salvation to all.”
Here, then, is Fr Breck. Incidentally, he mentions Holy Saturday because the Orthodox (and, presumably, Eastern Catholics) proclaim the entire book of Jonah as the fourth reading during the vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday:
More specifically, Jonah is an image of the Jewish people in the time of their reconstruction following the Exile into Babylon . The prophet is identified as “Jonah, son of Amittai,” who lived under the reign of King Jeroboam II (ca.786-746; 2 Ki. 14:25). Most commentators, however, date the book during the post-Exilic period (from the late 6th century BC). At that time, the great figures of Ezra, Nehemiah and the prophet Obadiah were struggling to preserve Jewish tradition over against the religious syncretism and idolatry of surrounding pagan countries. The result was to lead Israel into a period of strict isolation, expressed as a rejection and even a despising of heathen nations. Jonah, by this reading, is a didactic figure, who finally, if reluctantly, proclaims God’s pardon to the repentant people of Nineveh. Thereby he serves to prepare for the coming of Christ, the Messiah, whose life, death and resurrection will work redemption not only for the chosen people of Israel, but for the world as a whole.
Twice in His recorded teachings Jesus speaks of “the sign of Jonah” (Mt 12:39; Lk 11:29). These are parallel passages, although each evangelist has shaped the received tradition in such a way as to drive home a particular theological point. If the Church has retained the prophecy of Jonah in its Holy Saturday lectionary, it is primarily because of the parallel between Jonah and Jesus presented in images of death, burial and resurrection. The prophet, having been cast into the sea (an image of chaos and death), is swallowed by a “great fish” or “whale,” symbol of the tomb; after three days and nights he is expelled onto the shore, in order to continue his mission to call the Ninevites to repentance. The Lord Jesus is crucified, then buried in Joseph’s tomb, to rise “on the third day,” in order to pursue His own mission to call the world to repentance and salvation. The message of Holy Saturday, with the reading of the prophecy of Jonah, is the message of victory over death, of Christ’s resurrection and the destruction of the power of Sheol. It is the paschal message that proclaims God’s universal love, offered freely and without limit to both Hebrew and Ninevite, to Jew and Gentile alike, that is, to all those who seek their salvation through the person and work of the Son of God.
The sign of Jonah, though, is not limited to a prophetic announcement of Christ’s resurrection. In St Luke’s version of Jesus’ saying (11:29-32), there is no allusion to resurrection at all. Here Jesus declares, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” If Jonah is not a “sign,” a wondrous portent, of Christ’s victory over death in this Gospel, then in what sense is he a sign? To the evangelist Luke, the sign is Jonah’s proclamation, his fervent appeal to the Ninevites to repent of their sinful ways, to abandon their idolatry, and to commit their lives to the God of Israel, the unique Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus, like Jonah, comes from afar (may we see here an allusion to His “preexistence,” His eternal presence with the Father?). He comes, like his predecessor, as a prophetic witness to God’s work of salvation that seeks to embrace all of humankind. And like that earlier message, Jesus’ words summon an “evil generation” – which signifies every generation, including our own – to repent: to turn from and reject the deception of idolatry and the lure of sinful and corrupting behavior, in order to welcome and embrace the One who comes to proclaim and to offer salvation to all.