Jonah and the Whale

The Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow's Kremlin has, in the entrance hallway, a rather vivid and humorous portrayal of the story of Jonah and the whale that I saw on Monday.

The story is read on the holiest of Jewish holidays, 'Yom Kippur', for it tells the story of the repentance of the people of Nineveh, confronted with the truth of their sinfulness by the reluctant prophet, Jonah, whose attempts to escape his vocation have been thwarted by God (helped by storms, sailors and whales).

Having finally embraced that vocation, he is disappointed that his prophecy of destruction is thwarted by the people of Nineveh taking his message seriously and changing their lives. It beautifully suggests that the art of prophecy is not predictive but performative. The performance is meant to make people reconsider their lives and take a new course, turned from their crooked directions to the straight path of their being. The future is always open to our turnings.

The story of Jonah is seen as a foreshadowing of the story of Christ, not least the three days spent in the belly of the whale, a descent that leads to new life. But it also contains the seed of a radically different way of seeing Christ's life. Jonah is a (reluctant) messenger but the onus of turning away God's wrath is not in anything that he is but rests in the individual consciences of the people of Nineveh.

God can speak in many ways but what matters is our receptive hearing. Jesus does nothing but point us to the reality of God and invites us in. There is no complex story of  sin, sacrifice and redemption but one of a calling prophet that directs our attention to what is possible within ourselves. There is no need for complex mediation between God and human beings. They stand before each other speaking and listening - a dialogue of opportunity.


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