Friday, March 18, 2011
When I was growing up, my dad had a boat. It was a powerboat, a 26-foot cabin cruiser, and every summer our family spent many weekends cruising Long Island Sound. Occasionally we’d take longer, week-long trips along the coast of southern New England.
On the first of these extended trips – I think I was about eight years old – we ran into some very heavy weather. The rough seas and high winds tossed our little boat around like a cork, and my dad, worried we might be swept overboard, sent my brother and me down below into the cabin. Well, it was pretty boring down there, so I just stretched out on one of the bunks and within minutes had fallen asleep. And for three hours, as the boat rolled and pitched, I slept like a rock, and only awoke as we tied up at the marina in Mystic, Connecticut.
My dad thought it remarkable that I could sleep through all that rough weather, and recalling how Jonah had done pretty much the same thing during his storm at sea, took to calling me Jonah whenever we were aboard the boat. He also remarked that “when the going gets rough, the tough go to sleep.” From a very early age, then, I felt this personal connection with Jonah, the hero of today’s first reading.
The Book of Jonah is really a very amusing book, a droll telling of a splendid little story about the judgment and mercy of God. And in reading it, we find it populated with this wonderful cast of characters. They’re all remarkably likable – well, perhaps Jonah himself is a bit fussy, but even in his grumpiness we can sympathize with him. After all, haven’t we all, at one time or another, argued with God about the events in our lives or the lives of those we love? In truth I think we see ourselves in Jonah, a man motivated as much by his selfishness, his bigotries and fears, as he is by his faith. And the rest of the cast -- the pagan sailors, the king, the Ninevites, even the city’s animals – they all come across as straightforward folks, as guileless, likable characters.
But more importantly, this short Old Testament book is really a prelude to the Gospels, for in it we witness God’s plan of salvation, a plan extending beyond the chosen people to all of humanity. We also witness God’s mercy in the presence of sincere repentance.
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus warns the religious leaders of His day. Always asking for signs, they’re unable to see the sign right before their eyes, Jesus Himself. They’ve already rejected the message of John the Baptist, and now they’re rejecting the very one they’ve been waiting for, the Messiah Himself.
This is the sign that Jesus gives that evil generation, a generation no more evil than our own. He gives the sign of His death and Resurrection: the sign of His overwhelming love, and a sign of hope, that His power knows no limits. There is no greater sign than this.
And, like Jonah, but infinitely greater, Jesus is also a sign of conversion, a sign that calls to us especially during this season of Lent. He too preaches repentance and conversion to a generation that seems always to be looking for signs.
Do we really need miracles to believe? I hope not, at least nothing more than the miracle of the Eucharist, the miracle of Emmanuel, of “God with us” every day until the end of time. I know the love of God is more than enough for me.
And we too are called to be signs. The best sign you and I can give to the world is our reformed lives and our genuine love for each other. Jesus began His public ministry by calling us to do just that. In His words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is what we should focus on during this Lent: accepting Jesus’ invitation to turn back to God, and discover the mystery of joy and freedom in that turning. This is what we should desire. This is what we should pray for this Lent.