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Monday, February 25, 2013

The "sign of Jonah" and the "Queen of the South"

"Queen of Sheba,"
American artist Nancy Reilly

The Lenten lectionary is, in a way, an intensive manual of the catechumenate. It’s as if the Church is giving a crash course before the great “oral exam” of the Easter Vigil: “If you’re going to say ‘yes’ to us, forever and ever, this is what you’re saying yes to. We just want you to be sure.”

On Monday of the first week of Lent, which in antiquity was the first day of the Lenten fast (since Sundays aren’t counted), the gospel is Matthew 25, the parable of the final judgment, where the king reveals himself to have be identified with the naked, sick, hungry, and imprisoned. Wednesday, the gospel is the gospel in which Jesus castigates the crowds who didn’t listen to his message, because they demanded a “sign” that he was from God. He retorts, you may recall, that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah (and that story is referenced in the first reading), while Jesus extols the effort of the Queen of the South who came to hear Solomon, and Jesus’s says his teaching is even greater than Solomon’s.

14th century illustration of the Qu'ran, Jonah story
The lesson of Wednesday's scripture is related to the repentant vision of the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur. I’m not scholar of Judaism, but what I do know is that on this great yearly feast of atonement, the entire book of Jonah is read. Why? Why is this little satire with its well-known story of the whale and the reluctant prophet a call to atonement? Well, it seems to me that it’s exactly about what we need to be hearing: the breaking down of walls and prejudices, and the opening of the walls of the city of humanity to match the wide-open gates of the city of God. Jonah is sent to Assyria, for goodness sake, to preach repentance to a God that the Ninevites didn’t even believe in! No wonder he didn’t want to go. He was a religious bigot, not that there are any of those in our church or nation today. The god inside Jonah was too small, and it wasn’t until a whale regurgitated him up smelly and bile-drenched on the shores of Babylon that he began to get the idea: it wasn’t about him, it wasn’t about his little fantasy of divine favor for his nation, but it was about the God of the cosmos. And in the crazy story, he starts preaching in one of the largest cities in the known world, and the people believe him and repent.

It’s not Babylon’s repentance that’s required: it’s Jonah’s! Jonah has to divest himself of the little idol of his temple and open himself to the true God of the universe. 

Like Jonah, the Queen of the South, another non-believer like Nineveh, makes the journey to discover the truth that comes from Solomon, and Jesus singles her out for emulation as well. 

Christianity has to be less a moral way or an ethical religion than a doxological one. There’s no basis for preaching a moral vision of Christ without the essential underpinning, which is the sense of “our Father,” one God whose love calls everyone, equally, into a non-covetous family of interdependence and mutual giving. See, the inner imperative to an ethic underlies our message, but the message is one of announcing the good news of God’s dominion, and not just any God, but a God whose visible manifestation (to us, literally, an incarnation rather than an avatar) is a human being living a life fully given for others. 

So the Lenten question posed to catechumens, candidates, and us pew-fillers might then be: first, who's your Daddy? And then, what are my prejudices? Whom do I shy away from, even abhor, because they don’t fit my idea of someone who could be a child of God? Because whoever it is, I’m wrong, and by Jonah I need to drop that prejudice before I’m thrown off a boat in a storm and swallowed by a whale. God’s going to have her way with me; it’s probably better to go willingly. At least I won’t need to be put through an industrial wash when I get there.

The bath that we all get at the beginning of our mission is baptism. I’m starting, again, to look forward to renewing those baptismal promises, even as I’m starting to fret about the music and liturgy of Triduum and Easter. I hope this Lent, with its penitential celebrations and scrutinies (for some of us), helps all of us to expose our parochialism and expand our horizons to become citizens of the city of God with its wide open gates and surprisingly diverse population. There’s that, and the dawning realization that we are not the servants of a cosmic Charlemagne, but the servant-God of Jesus, our Father, who not only serves a great feast, but washes the feet of all who gather at table. It’s not such a hard sell, really. We’re all in it together, equally, at last, and everywhere we turn there’s someone we didn’t expect to see, with a story to tell from Sheba, or Nineveh, or...well, where do you come from?

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