Today’s Gospel brings us to the beginning of Christ’s apostolic life and ministry. The Third Luminous Mystery is a meditation on this specific moment in the life of Christ. Before Christ’s parables, before Jesus begins to teach us more clearly about His relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit – before He tells His disciples about His coming death and Resurrection – He calls to conversion. In a lot of ways He simply continues the message of John the Baptist, the main thing that changes is the urgency. While it was urgent for the Jews to convert when John the Baptist was preaching, preparing for the imminent arrival of the messiah, it becomes even more imperative when the true identity of Jesus is made known at His Baptism. Now it is no longer, “get ready because the messiah is almost here,” instead it is, “now the messiah is standing right in front of you: behold the Lamb of God.” Jesus says, “repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is now here, present in your midst.” Jesus Himself is the Kingdom of Heaven – those He calls to join Him and who attach themselves to Him enjoy already the peace that only God can give.
Part of this urgent demand of repentance involves asking God for forgiveness. The Church Fathers see two interesting truths about repentance expressed in the story of Jonah. The first truth has to with the duration of repentance, the second has to do with the effectiveness of fasting. The Ninevites were horrible sinners – they were truly awful people performing all sorts of abominable deeds.
The truth of the matter is, they were a fairly normal Gentile nation who went about their daily lives adhering to cultural norms, abiding by the laws of their King, advancing the economy, producing art and culture. If we were to analyze the Ninevites today, we would probably say, “They do things differently than we do, but they aren’t really that bad. They are basically good people.” And to those basically good people, the Prophet Jonah says, “Repent because in forty days Nineveh will be no more.” The word of God reaches from heaven through the mouth of the prophet to prick the hearts of the Ninevites. They didn’t look at themselves and say, “Oh come on, we’re not nearly as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah!” or, “hmmm… I wonder who the prophet is talking to?… certainly not me, I’m a pretty good person…” That little flicker of grace at the bottom of the hearts of the people of Nineveh gave them pause to consider how God sees them. They didn’t say, “Well the God that I believe in is a loving God and He would never destroy a city in forty days…”
They reacted with the grace in their hearts, from the grace of the words of the prophet Jonah, and they struck their breasts saying, “Mercy! Mercy!” They followed their King and with sackcloth and in ashes fasted for three days. And the best news is that God forgave them, He spared them, and they entered into a right relationship with Him. Let us then consider how much more valuable repentance is than self-justification and excuses. God is merciful and desires to be merciful. Let us receive His mercy and love.
Why, then, are we asked what was prefigured by the prophet being swallowed by that monster and restored alive on the third day? Christ explained it when he said an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. … So then, as Jonah went from the ship into the belly of the whale, so Christ went from the tree into the tomb, or into the abyss of death. And 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. And as Jonah was first commanded to preach to the Ninevites but his prophecy did not come to them until after the whale had vomited him out, so the prophecy made to the Gentiles did not come to them until after the resurrection of Christ.1
Why does he establish the appointed time to be only a period of three days? So that you may learn even the virtue of the barbarians—I call the Ninevites barbarians, who were able to annul in three days such anger caused by sin. I want you to marvel at the philanthropy of God, who was satisfied with three days of repentance for so many transgressions. I do not want you to sink into despair, even though you have innumerable sins.2
If the apostle said too little [about fasting], let them hear the prophet [in the psalm] saying, “I afflicted my soul with fasting.” One who does not fast is uncovered and naked and exposed to wounds. Finally, if Adam had uncovered himself with fasting, he would not have become naked. Nineveh freed itself from death by fasting. The Lord himself said, “But this kind of demon will be cast out only by prayer and fasting.”3
Like a heavenly power overseeing Nineveh’s charge, fasting snatched the city from these gates of death and returned Nineveh to life.4
THEODORE OF MOPSUESTIA:
When they accepted instruction in this, then, they were naturally told to believe in God; when they accepted both the sentence and the instruction from the prophet’s sermon, they set their eyes on better things so as to give evidence of a decisive and serious repentance.5
SEVERIAN OF GABALA:
If married people are supposed to live as if they were single, how is it possible not to prefer virginity?6
Those who know that the end of the world is near realize that they will soon be consoled, and they comfort each other with this hope.7
And from that day they adhered to him so resolutely that they did not depart.… Let us, also, ourselves build a house in our heart and make a place where he may come and teach us.8
- LETTER 102.6. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (p. 140). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON REPENTANCE AND ALMSGIVING 5.4. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (p. 141). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTER 44. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (p. 142). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON REPENTANCE AND ALMSGIVING 5.4. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (p. 142). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON JONAH 3.5–9. Ferreiro, A. (2003). Introduction to the Twelve Prophets. In A. Ferreiro (Ed.), The Twelve Prophets (p. 143). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- PAULINE COMMENTARY FROM THE GREEK CHURCH. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 70). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON PAUL’S EPISTLES. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 70). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON JOHN 7.9.2, 3. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 19). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.