In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the crowds who seek a sign that they will only receive the sign of Jonah. In order to understand the sign of Jonah, let’s review the main events of the 1st Reading.
Jonah is asked by God to go to Nineveh and preach to the people. Nineveh is found in modern day Iraq. As an aside, Pope Francis will visit the Christian communities of Nineveh Plain during his March 5 -8 trip to Iraq.
Nineveh is described as a huge city whose people were pagans. They were well known for their worship of idols. In other words, they did not believe in God. In his preaching, Jonah tells the people that, if they do not reform their lives, their city will be destroyed in 40 days.
The Ninevites respond immediately to Jonah’s preaching. The results are incredible: “They believe God”. As an external sign of their inner desire to change their lives, they “proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth”. Not even the king and the animals were exempt from participating in these acts of penance. This shows that every human being and every animal were united in their efforts to turn away from worldly attachments and pleasures. Rather, there was a real urgency to turn back to God and to seek his mercy.
The result was that God was moved by their sincere efforts to change their lives. God relented and did not inflict the intended punishment for their sin and evil. Consequently, the Ninevites experienced 1st hand God’s extravagant love, compassion and forgiveness.
This “sign of Jonah” provides us with 3 important lessons on how we ought to live Lent.
The 1st lesson: Like the Ninevites, during these 40 days, God is calling us to a radical conversion. As I shared with you on Ash Wednesday, “conversion” comes from a Latin word, which means “to turn”. In fact, a double turning is involved.
As the brochure from the Archdiocese of Toronto that is posted on our parish Facebook page indicates, Lent is a time to turn away from our sins and turn back to God. It is a time to turn away from those attitudes, values and life style choices that are barriers to developing a loving relationship with God and others. Lent is the time to turn towards those attitudes, values and life style choices that draw us into a deeper loving relationship with God and others.
The 2nd lesson: Like the Ninevites, during these 40 days, our response to the call of conversion ought to be immediate and total. Let us not adopt half-hearted measures nor make excuses and delay making the necessary changes in our lives. Let us not put off making God a priority until tomorrow or until “I feel like it” or until the current home renovation project is done. Now, today, is the time to bring our lives in line with the values of the Gospel.
The 3rd lesson: Like the Ninevites, during these 40 days, fasting is an important tool that nurtures and sustains an immediate, total and radical conversion. The church has traditionally taught that fasting is one of the 3 pillars of Lent.
The literal meaning of fasting is to eat less food. The goal of disciplining our bodies is to renew our spirit. For example, less attention given to food is to lead to more attention given to prayer. Furthermore, the intent is to give the money saved on food to those in need as a form of almsgiving.
But Pope Francis encourages us to adopt a view of fasting that moves beyond focusing solely on food. Here are the specific examples that Francis gives:
- Fast from hurting words and choose to say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and choose gratitude.
- Fast from anger and choose patience.
- Fast from pessimism and choose hope.
- Fast from worries and choose to have trust in God.
- Fast from complaining and choose positive and affirming comments.
- Fast from pressures and choose to be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness and choose to live in joy.
- Fast from selfishness and choose to be compassionate.
- Fast from grudges and choose to love and to forgive.
- Fast from words and choose to be silent and listen.
The Pope is stressing that the ultimate purpose of any fasting is to change our hearts. The fruits of changed hearts are always good works. Matthew Kelly is an American spiritual author. He wrote these remarks about the Lenten season. “It’s not what you give up; it’s what you become”.
As our Eucharist continues, let us ask God for the grace to commit to fasting in our journey towards an immediate and radical conversion. Then, like the Ninevites of old, during these 40 days, we can experience 1st hand the unlimited and unending love, compassion and forgiveness of our God.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
February 24, 2021