The story of Jonah is our story, with its details of rebellion, repentance, salvation and mission. The “sign of Jonah” tells us how those details are grounded in the person and preaching of Jesus Christ.
Of the fifteen Old Testament passages read in Orthodox practice at the vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday, the fourth consists of the entire, brief book of Jonah. Although the book is numbered among the “Minor Prophets,” it is unique: rather than offer a compilation of prophetic utterances, it recounts a spiritual pilgrimage. However we may assess its “historicity,” the work is preserved in the Church’s canon of Scripture because of its timeless proclamation of God’s universal saving grace and love. It is a story of rebellion and redemption, of God’s forgiveness and mercy extended alike to Jew and Gentile, saint and sinner, you and me.
To the Fathers of the Church, Jonah is a “type,” a prophetic image that points forward to and is fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. The blessed Augustine declares, “as Jonah went from the [wooden] ship into the belly of the whale, so Christ went from the tree [of the cross] into the tomb, or into the abyss of death. As Jonah was sacrificed for those endangered by the storm, so Christ was offered for those who are drowning in the storm of this world” (Letter 102). St Cyril of Jerusalem compares Jonah and Jesus in the following way. Both were sent by God to preach repentance; both were able to calm the tempestuous sea; both sojourned in a place of death and emerged by the will and power of God. “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” (Catechetical Lectures, on Mt. 12:40). In the case of Jonah, however, the calming of the sea and his “resurrection” from the belly of the great fish are works wrought by God, whereas in the case of Jesus the miraculous power is His own as One of the Holy Trinity.
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.
On Holy Saturday the Church announces the good news of Christ’s resurrection, and it does so in part by recalling the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah. Together with his story, however, there goes a summons that takes its final shape in these words of Jesus, that resurrection from death and salvation to eternal life are offered to those—to all those, but only to those—who hear the prophetic call to repentance, heed that call, and embrace, with faith and with love, the One God and Author of Life.
Christ is risen!