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Wednesday, First Week of Lent

March 8, 2006

Blessed St. John of God’s Day! (look for his story in the “Saints of Lent” category)

Jonah 3:1-10 (God forgave the Ninevites, who repented on hearing Jonah preach)
Psalm 51:3-19 “A broken, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn”
+Luke 11:29-32 (Jesus is greater than Jonah–so repent!)

Sometimes God uses the most unlikely things and people to get His message across…or at least, that’s the way it seems to us.

Perhaps that’s because His message itself seems so unlikely to us: “I love you. Repent.” Our natural instinct is to ask, “Ok, which is it? Do You love me or do I have to repent?” The short answer is that He loves us just the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way. He sees us in the midst of spiritual self-destruction (also called sin) and He loves us too much to just sit back and smile while we blissfully mutilate our souls.

“Repent! Stop! Turn around! You’re going to kill yourself!”

It’s never been a popular message.

“Mind your own business. It’s my life. I can do what I want with it.”

But God doesn’t give up. He keeps calling. And the prophets who bring His message to us pay for it with their lives, generation after generation.

Jonah was actually one of the “lucky” ones. He met with no resistance from the Ninevites, and his mission was wildly successful–from God’s point of view. The Ninevites repented! The resistance Jonah fought was within himself. He didn’t want the Ninevites to repent. They were bitter enemies of Israel, with a long record of atrocities committed against his people (it might help our empathy to realize that ancient Nineveh was in modern-day Iraq). He didn’t love them. Jonah didn’t want redemption, restoration and reconciliation. He didn’t want the Ninevites to stop being enemies by becoming holy. He wanted them to stop being enemies by ceasing to exist. He wanted revenge. He wanted to see them wiped off the face of the earth. He didn’t have God’s heart. He didn’t want to have God’s heart. He had a suspicion that God wanted to spare them. That’s why he ran the other way in the first place, and how he ended up in the belly of the whale. That’s why he built himself a little hut outside the city to wait for God’s destruction of the place, and had a pity-party when that destruction didn’t happen. Ironically, the only person in the story of Jonah who didn’t repent was…Jonah. He, who neither loved nor repented, and the whale, were both rather unlikely messengers of God’s love and His call to repentance.

Jesus Himself was a rather unlikely messenger. There are still people today, thousands of them, who simply cannot believe that God–God!–would humble Himself so profoundly as to become one of us. It would be a little like Jonah, the “righteous” prophet of the Chosen People leaving his exalted heritage to take on citizenship in corrupt, outcast Nineveh out of love for the very people who had brutalized his family. Divine love. Unfathomable. And this unlikely messenger followed Jonah in another way. Just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale because of God’s love for the Ninevites, Jesus spent three days in the belly of the earth, in death, because of God’s love for us. The citizens of Nineveh repented in the face of such love. Will we? Will they, unlikely messengers themselves, rise up at the last judgment and condemn us?

There are unlikely messengers in our lives too. The Church is one, unlikely because of the weaknesses and failings of Her members. All the same, She, as the mystical Body of Christ (see I Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:30), is the continuation of Jesus’ life here on earth. Through Her, He continues to reveal His love to us, and to call us to repentance. God also uses people we dislike and disrespect, and even animals, to convey His words to us. I think of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22), Jonah’s whale and our kitties. We learn all sorts of spiritual lessons by trying to correct their misdeeds. Are we, like the Ninevites, willing to humble ourselves enough to listen to God’s voice when it comes to us from such unexpected (and often unwelcome) sources?

We ourselves are unlikely messengers. More often than not, we don’t even realize that God’s working through us. Other times we know very well that He wants to work through us and we find ourselves in Jonah’s sandals. We don’t want to go. We want the person in question to suffer for their misdeeds and/or we don’t want to risk having them lash out at us for delivering a message they don’t want to hear. Still God calls. He calls us to let Him change our hearts so that they beat as one with His Sacred Heart. He knows that if we learn to love, and our enemies learn to love, they won’t be enemies anymore. They will lay down their lives for us, even as we lay down our lives for them in imitation of our crucified Lord. And only in this exchange of sacrificial love will they and we find the joy we’ve been looking for all our lives.

We have forty days to repent, just as the Ninevites did. May we follow their example, that our lives may radiate the joy of divine love.

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