Monday, January 26, 2009

The Book of Jonah, and miracles

Yesterday in church the first reading was from the book of Jonah. A lot of agnostics like to make fun of the Book of Jonah, on the grounds that it's impossible for a man to survive three days inside a whale. Well, yes. I don't think that Jonah was really swallowed by a whale, and I don't know too many people today who do. For that matter, I don't think that St. Augustine, who talked extensively about the book of Jonah, thought he was swallowed by a whale. That particular book is a myth, a parable, to be interpreted, not literally, but as a figure of Christ. The story of Jonah is a prophecy of Christ: the three days inside the whale correspond to Christ's burial and descent into hell on Holy Saturday.

What I had forgotten, until I looked at the book of Jonah last night, is that Jonah actually pleads with the sailors for him to be put overboard, and the sailors like Pilate, ask for their hands to be washed of an innocent man's blood. Jonah willingly offered himself as a blood-sacrifice, just as Christ did. And Jonah, as much as Christ, was the Jews' "messiah to the gentiles", in this case to Nineveh. Really, what a profound foreshadowing of the Passion of Christ. Jonah was the unwilling vehicle of the salvation of the sailors, as Christ was the willing vehicle of the salvation of mankind. As Augustine puts it, As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world.

And really, when you think about it, what is the bigger miracle? The agnostics are right to tear apart the lesser miracle- no, Jonah wasn't really swallowed by "a big fish". But they can't touch the greater miracle: that hundreds of years before Christ, the Jews were telling amongst themselves a strange and enigmatic fable about a man who is swallowed by a whale. They didn't know what it means, and they couldn't- no one could, until "all was fulfilled". But for some reason, unknowingly, they put this strange, obscure, poorly written fable into their canon of Sacred Scripture, and passed it on through scholarship and recitation. Their rabbis taught it and their youths learned it- not knowing that hundreds of years later, people would look at it and see an unmistakable foretelling of the Passion of the Lord. That is the real miracle here, not some tall story about "a big fish", as William Jennings Bryan said. The real miracle is not whether the story happened: the miracle is the story itself. Just one of the many details in world history and cosmology that make no sense by themselves, but make perfect sense when we read them in the light of John 1:14, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."

Christ was, as C.S. Lewis liked to put it, the Myth made fact. In Christ the myth of Jonah- and of the Saoshyant, and of Vergil's Eclogue, and of the Suffering Servant- was made fact. In Christ is the story of Jonah, and all these other stories, fulfilled.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever.

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