Christ is Risen!
The two passages from Scripture that have been chosen for the service this evening tell us at once that we are still celebrating Easter, the Resurrection of Christ. We have heard the second chapter of the Book of Jonah and John 21:1-14. The whole of Jonah is read at the first Easter service in the Byzantine Church – along with fourteen other Old Testament passages that point forward to Christ’s rising from the dead – and the passage from John is one of the eleven Resurrection Gospels that are read one after the other through out the year at successive Sunday matins, beginning at Easter itself. This evening I would like to take a look at the inner connections between these two quite different texts.
The immediate link between Jonah and the Resurrection is provided by the last verse of the preceding chapter, which we did not hear. This tells us that ‘Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights’ (Jonah 1:17).
The connection between Jonah and the Resurrection goes back to Jesus himself. In Matthew 12:39f. Christ says to the scribes and Pharisees who are seeking a sign from him: ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man [that is, ‘I’] be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ The parallel Lukan passage has only ‘For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man [that is, ‘I’] be to this generation’ (Lk 11:30). We are entitled to think that Matthew, faced with Jesus’ original cryptic saying as recorded in Luke, felt it necessary to expand the reference just in case someone missed the point.
Most of Chapter 2 of Jonah is taken up by a psalm that Jonah must have composed in retrospect, after he was saved. The language is very powerful:
I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over. Then I said, I am cast out of the sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple (Jonah 2:2-7).
We can almost hear Christ himself having similar thoughts as he accepts death in that incomprehensible combination of trust in the Father and dereliction that is reflected in his words to the penitent thief and his quotation from another psalm: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46). But God had not forsaken Jonah, just as he would not forsake Christ. For ‘the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land’ (Jonah 2:10). Christ too is freed from death, having, like Jonah, offered his own life for the sake of others.
Here the sea is something frightening, capable of taking a man prisoner and holding him for ever – like death itself. And to be swallowed by a monstrous fish is simply a suitable way of expressing what has befallen the prophet – and would befall Christ. But God is in control. He speaks to the fish (that is, to Death), and the fish releases Jonah onto the shore
It is at this point that we can see the connection between the story of Jonah and the passage from the Gospel of John. In John, again, the sea has a role to play, though this time it is calm and unthreatening. Again, there are fish, though this time they symbolise not death but life. Again, there is a shore, and again, as with Jonah, it is a shore on the other side of death. Jesus stands there, his life, like Jonah’s, having been ‘brought up from corruption’. Jesus takes up the story where Jonah in the Old Testament narrative of the whale left off: on the other side of salvation.
Now it is the disciples who are ‘at sea’, both literally and figuratively, fishing at night unsuccessfully, having caught nothing. When asked if they have anything to eat, they say, ‘No.’ And Christ tells them that if they will obey his simple command and cast their net ‘on the right side’ they will find what to eat. They do as they are told, and as a result are enabled to share a meal with Christ. They don’t eat the fish they have caught themselves, however, but the fish and bread provided by Christ. The thing to remember is that it is only after they have carried out his commandment that they are able to share with him his food.
Within the passage from John we see the disciples lifted from one level to another through their obedience to Christ. This movement actually corresponds at a deep level to what happens between the story of Jonah’s salvation from death and the Resurrection of Christ. We are invited to move from one level of understanding to another. It reminds me of a story I heard years ago. You have to imagine yourself in a courtyard in a Jewish ghetto, somewhere in Eastern Europe. A rabbi is sitting there reading a commentary on Jonah, and a young boy comes up to him and asks what it is he’s reading. And so he tells him the story of Jonah and the whale. Having listened carefully, the boy asks him, ‘Is that really true?’ And the rabbi is silent for a long time before he answers: ‘Well, it wasn’t true then, but it is true now.’
Within revelation there is hidden the arrow of time. God’s self-revelation always points forward to something yet to come. The inner truth of the story of Jonah is revealed only centuries later in the Resurrection of Christ. Saint Maximus the Confessor (a seventh-century Byzantine ascetic and theologian) has expressed this in a dramatic way. The Old Testament, he says, is like a shadow: it gives you only a vague idea of the reality to which it relates. The New Testament is like an icon, an image, and is able to express more clearly the reality towards which it points. But the truth about the world – about God, about man, about creation – will only be seen in the Age to come. Only then, in the Kingdom of God, will we know what the past has been about.
To know the Resurrected Christ – in this present age – is to have some idea at least of what the Kingdom will be like. Christ has broken into this world from the End, from that final shore, and invites us to join him there, through obedience to his commandments, in an eternal Feast. Amen.
Christ is Risen!
Bishop Basil of Amphipolis
6th May 2007