Friday, 22 March 2019

Lent Address 3: Jonah - 'In the murky depths'


Lent 2019

THE ADDRESS BEFORE COMPLINE

Week Three: Jonah 2 ‘In the murky depths’

THE BOOK OF JONAH

Chapter Two
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
   and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
   and you heard my voice.
3 You cast me into the deep,
   into the heart of the seas,
   and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
   passed over me.
4 Then I said, “I am driven away
   from your sight;
how shall I look again
   upon your holy temple?”
5 The waters closed in over me;
   the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6   at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
   whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
   O Lord my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away,
   I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
   into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols
   forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
   will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
   Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
10Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

Last week I suggested that the great fish that swallowed Jonah up as he plunged into the waters was something of a distraction to us. The imagery of Jonah and ‘the whale’ is good fun but is it much more than a jolly way for children to engage with a fantastical story? Well, yes, it is. There is so much more to the story of Jonah, and what we might learn of ourselves and of God through reading and meditating upon it.

The passage last week saw Jonah thrown overboard in an act of desperate propitiation, in the hope that it would calm the storm that had engulfed the mariners on the ship bound for Tarshish, on which Jonah had fled God’s call.

Now Jonah is in the belly of the great fish. And this is where we must consider the role of the fish and the sign that it is.

First the great fish is redemptive. After all, we read, “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah (3.17).” The fish is a sign of the redemptive love of God scooping up Jonah to give him security and protection. It is a sign that despite our disobedience, our failure to listen and be attentive to the ways of the Lord, God does not ever wish to see us drown or sink so far from his presence that there is no way back.

Secondly the great fish becomes the arena in which the sign the Jesus refers to as ‘the Sign of Jonah’ takes place. For as we the reading concluded last week, “Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”

And that takes us to this evening. And it takes us to the heart of why Jonah is such a significant book for Lent. The time in the belly of the fish is the literary and spiritual heart of the narrative of the book. You can map out Lent, Holy Week and Easter onto this book.

Lent, a time of deep wrestling with God’s purposes in one’s life, interrogating what it is God really calls us to, endeavouring to be faithful to the call that God places upon us.

Holy Week, more specifically the Holy Three Days known as the Triduum Sacrum, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when we plunge into the depths with Christ and find that he is the redemptive source of love for us.

Easter, both the day itself and the Great Fifty Days that take us to Pentecost, is the time we have been drawn out of the waters and, like a fish flipping on the shore, have to learn to breathe in a new way, in a new environment of Life in the Spirit.

That last point is looking ahead to the remaining two addresses, but for tonight, we will focus on those Three Holy Days. What I will do now is reflect on those three days, weaving in - albeit out of order - words from this evening’s passage of Jonah.

Those Three Days are also sometimes known as the Paschal Triduum.

Paschal is a word that derives from ‘Passover’. It taps deep into the roots of God’s deliverance of his First-Called People, Israel. Maundy Thursday has strong Passover links and allusions as the blood of the Passover Lambs are marked on the doors of the Israelites as signs of protection, as Christ becomes the Passover Lamb, whose blood will be shed, delivered into the hands of the wicked.

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
   will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
   Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’

Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane that night mirrors Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish. If you know the topography of Jerusalem this becomes even more obvious because Gethsemane is across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Looking up and across the valley all one would see is the Temple. Jonah cries from the belly of the fish, and Jesus from Gethsemane:

4b how shall I look again
   upon your holy temple?”

7 As my life was ebbing away,
   I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
   into your holy temple.

Speaking of his own body, tying in with the significant three days, Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’ (John 2.19)

You’ll remember that the deliverance of the people of Israel was through water; the water of the Red Sea. It is little wonder that the Early Church teachers connect the deliverance from slavery that God wrought in the Exodus from Egypt with the deliverance from sin that God effects in the waters of baptism.

Furthermore on Maundy Thursday there is the washing of the disciples feet recorded by St John (John 13.1-11). The footwashing signifies acts of loving service in Christ’s name and also the need for cleansing through the washing away of sin. Even if our whole body is clean through baptism, which it is, still we pick up dirt on our feet, which will washing away; a pointer to the need to be reconciled with God and neighbour through confessing our sins.

And Jonah’s words may be read in that way, as a testimony of reconciliation. Notably also this is the first time in the Jonah narrative that Jonah has ‘owned’ God, as in understanding God to be his Lord and not simply a remote deity.

Through the Incarnation God is not remote from our experience. In Gethsemane we are drawn closer into Jesus’ prayer to the Father, with whom he is absolutely one in the power of the Holy Spirit.

6b I went down to the land
   whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
   O Lord my God.

Jonah’s prayer speaks of the abandonment of Good Friday and the depths of the experience of isolation which Christ went through in his redemptive love:

            4 Then I said, “I am driven away
   from your sight;
how shall I look again
   upon your holy temple?”
5 The waters closed in over me;
   the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
            6   at the roots of the mountains.

Strong echoes there of Jesus’ words of desolation from the cross ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Psalm 22.1). Those words of desolation and abandonment also bespeak an intimate relationship. Yet Jesus dies on the cross. He has plunged the very depths for us and with us, and this is where the great fish becomes the sign of resurrection. As Jonah says,

6b I went down to the land
   whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
   O Lord my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away,
   I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
   into your holy temple.

That land ‘whose bars closed upon me for ever’ is, without doubt, death. That is one of the great mysteries and questions we feel bound to ask. What happened to Jesus when he died? At what moment did he rise again? There are different ways of accounting for it, but actually it is something about which the gospels remain resolutely silent. There is only one hint of an answer in the New Testament that might address our curiosity, from the first letter of Peter:

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water”. (1 Peter 3.18-20)

That is often known as the Harrowing of Hell, the notion that Christ descended to the depths to raise up those who, chronologically, could never have called upon him. It’s articulated in the Apostles’ Creed in which we proclaim that Jesus ‘was crucified, dead and buried and buried. He descended into hell. And the third day he rose again’. That is our dogmatic proclamation of the Sign of Jonah.

So the great fish swallowed up Jonah and took him into the deeps. This redemptive action is redolent of Christ’s redemptive death and the significance of the Three Days. ‘And on the third day he rose again’ (Nicene Creed).

Little wonder then that this plunge into waters to be raised to new life and, as the book of Jonah puts it, ‘spewed onto the beach’ has been associated with the death and resurrection of Christ and our own experience of baptism and life beyond it.

It’s rather galling, but everything I have tried to say tonight is expressed rather more pithily by St Paul in his letter to the Romans:

“Therefore we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life”. (Romans 6.4)

Recommended further reading:
Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment. Dublin: Columba Press, 2002.
(A limited number of copies are available to borrow, or buy second hand, from the Minster.)


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