Throughout His public ministry Our Lord was constantly giving signs of Who He really is. Despite this, many around Him looked upon His signs for their entertainment value alone. At one particular point a crowd had gathered around Him hoping to catch a performance. Intuiting this, He told them “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11:29). He promises that they too will be given a sign, but a very distinct sign—the Sign of Jonah.
In hindsight it is rather obvious, especially in His reference to three days and three nights, a reference to His Resurrection. Our Lord certainly was predicting His Resurrection, but how this prediction was initially interpreted hinges on what actually happened to Jonah. Many assume that he spent three days and three nights in the whale alive. Taken that way, Our Lord would not necessarily be predicting His Resurrection. One could easily assume that He was in fact denying His Resurrection because He would be denying His actual death. Instead He only appeared to be dead like Jonah “appeared” to be dead in belly of the whale.
To properly understand the sign then we must examine the text. It is reasonable to assume that if someone is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a whale that they would die. So we would expect that the text would be explicit had he remained alive. But Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:1-10 RSV translation) suggests He was dead. His cry comes “out of the belly of Sheol” after his “soul” fainted within him (i.e. he died). In response to Jonah’s prayer God gives a one-word response—“arise” (3:1). God is calling Jonah from death to life.
So then just “as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin’eveh” by his death and resurrection after 3 days leading to the repentance of the Nin’evites, “so will the Son of Man” through His death and Resurrection of Jesus lead to the repentance of the Gentiles. In other words, it is meant to show the universality of the offer of salvation.
This sign is not only for that generation but for all generations. Yet still there is a second Sign of Jonah that is particular appropriate for our generation. Especially because we too appear to be living amidst an evil generation. The second Sign of Jonah is the Sign of Mercy.
The last three Popes have all placed great emphasis on now being the time of mercy. This is at the heart of the Jubilee Year of Mercy we are currently celebrating. Why this emphasis? Because we are living in the midst of an extremely wicked generation. But rather than being prophets of gloom, we can live with great confidence because “where sin abounds, grace abounds the more” (Romans 5:20). While the temptation to become a prophet of woe is ever-present, we run the risk of falling into the same trap that ensnared Jonah. And like Jonah, God is using this time to enroll us in His School of Mercy.
When Jonah is touched by God’s mercy and saved from the pit he rejoices. When Nin’eveh receives His mercy he grows angry (Jonah 4:1). Why would he be angry? He is angry because God didn’t punish the Nin’evites. In fact he even blames God saying that is the reason why he didn’t want to go in the first place. He knew God was going to be merciful to them and his preaching would have been in vain. He wanted to be a prophet of woe despite the fact that he had been the beneficiary of a greater act of mercy than all of Nin’eveh combined. Nin’eveh was saved from destruction while Jonah was lifted up from the grip of death.
But there is a second dimension of mercy in which Jonah needs to be schooled and I would dare say that this is the one we too need to be schooled in; what we might call God’s “initial mercy.” God takes away the shade that Jonah had found but because he does not realize that it was God’s mercy that gave it to him in the first place, he once again becomes distraught. This is because he only connects mercy with sin. God’s mercy is much richer than that. It is God’s mercy that reaches down and not only forgives our sins but also preserves us from falling into sin. In fact this is probably the greatest gift of His mercy—that which preserves us from falling. That is why we speak of Our Lady as Our Lady of Mercy. She had no sin to forgive, but instead “she has received mercy in an extraordinary way” (Dives in Misericordia, 99) through God’s preservation from the stain of sin.
If we were to pinpoint the exact snare that Jonah was trapped in we could say that although he received God’s mercy, he did not actually experience it. This can be a dangerous pitfall for us as well. We can only experience God’s mercy when we become aware of the ways in which He loves us from moment to moment. Mercy is the way in which God loves His creatures, giving to them everything that they are and have. Mercy is “love’s second name.” When we begin to recognize this, we develop a radical trust in Him so that even in the midst of our sufferings we are confident and unafraid because we see them as real signs of His mercy.
This is why the Divine Mercy Image is such a key aspect of this “time of mercy.” Our Lord is shown with his left foot in front of the right, suggesting He is walking (or to borrow the image of the Prodigal Son running) towards us with His mercy flowing toward us not only in the cleansing power of the water but also from the life-sustaining blood. And with that assurance, we can proclaim nothing else but “Jesus I trust in You!”
Jonah seems to become consumed with self-righteousness and condemnation of those outside the chosen people when he grows angry at the pardon of the Nin’evites. We too will do the same sort of thing until we go from reception to experience. Once I have tasted the mercy of the Lord (1 Pt 2:3) and glory in God’s mercy I will want to see it everywhere. I will rejoice in the mercies others receive and will act with great urgency to make His mercy known. I will hesitate to condemn and instead be quick to profess mercy. I will practice the Works of Mercy as a visible sign of God’s mercy operating on all those in physical and moral misery.
When St. Faustina was given an image of the eventual celebration of the Great Feast of Mercy she was overcome with joy and peace. When Our Lord asked her “What is it you desire, My daughter?” she responded “I desire worship and glory be given to Your mercy.” Certainly this vision was a sign of the fulfillment of her vision. But her joy was more complete than that. It was in the experience that mercy brings good from evil and is more powerful than even the worst evil we can imagine. Let the joy that is found in heaven over the one sinner who repents, spill over to the Church and her members.