The meaning of human existence was definitively determined and confirmed about 2,000 years ago in a little cave just outside Jerusalem when a dead man suddenly came alive again. Nobody saw the event itself – it was secret. Only its effects were perceived, just as this same man’s public miracles had been… in the midst of confusion, or chaos, or darkness, or in some kind of hidden or invisible circumstances. But the effects were perceived clearly. And yet frequently, their meaning was not perceived.
To see the Risen Christ after the torture and death He endured only days earlier evoked principally two emotions – fear and joy. The fear came from the natural confusion of seeing someone alive who had died. The ambiguity which such a situation presents is overwhelming to the psyche – and even most sincere believers in the Resurrection today would no doubt still be startled by this kind of encounter. The bridging of the worlds of the living and the dead calls for such an “unnatural” in-betweenness, a characteristic of the Christ which is hammered home numerous times in the pages of the Gospels. This should be no surprise when we believe He is both God and man, already a great mystery of “contradiction” and “ambiguity.” He was baptized in the “middle” place. He touches “unclean” things. He lives near cities but not in them. He is evasive physically and rhetorically. He is a shape-shifter. He is a gatekeeper.
The joy, in part “unleashed” or magnified by the fear, comes from perceiving that this gatekeeper has opened the way to Heaven in the Resurrection somehow in Himself, which is the meaning of the event. And a primal spiritual instinct ought to urge one not only to desire such an opening, but also to sense that the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth actually matches with this desire in a way that nothing else could. In other words, the story of Jesus is too good not to be true; human minds are not capable of devising a story like this – in fact, everything in our natural powers tends to fight against making these sorts of deep and universal existential claims that hinge on particulars, like the sort that would depend on an individual man in a real historical time and place. Our natural sensibilities prefer a God that is more like a cosmic soup or a distant watchmaker – not a Person, let alone three Persons. The “scandal of particularity” is deeply unsettling when rightly perceived. That is what happens when order, the Logos, involves Himself with the mess of the universe – there is a disruption, including in the chaos of our souls.
This was recently demonstrated to me after some discussions with defenders of a certain Easter article in the New York Times. I don’t intend to launch into an apologetic critique of the article – you can read such a thing here – I only mean to note the stubborn insistence that somehow the Resurrection, to a Christian, could be something other than what it is plainly preached as being by the apostles: a physical reanimation of the individual Jesus of Nazareth. The gymnastics used to get around this while still ferociously clinging to the title “Christian” were what really struck me. It occurred to me that this is precisely what that dreadful curse of Isaiah is all about – seeing without perceiving, hearing without understanding – even in the midst of claiming the masthead of Divine approval.
This is also basically what occurred during the public ministry of Christ, but in a slightly different way. While the folks I was talking with were through and through American leftists and therefore deeply opposed to any kind of nationalism, the same false Messianic paradigm which has seemingly always plagued the Jews since they entered Canaan was at work in them as well: the Messiah is a politician. For these leftists, the point of the Christ is by and large to advance laws and policies propping up public welfare programs, globalism, non-judgmentalism, and instant gratification of hedonistic desires. (The “economic Christ” and the “therapeutic Christ” are present as well.) For the Jews, it was and is about Jewish nationalism. Even today they are waiting for a singular figure to rise up to destroy the Palestinians and usher in a glorious Jewish peace in Israel, of course, with the Temple rebuilt. (Have they forgotten about Julian the Apostate’s miraculously disastrous attempt to rebuild the Temple, even before the Al-Aqsa mosque occupied the very spot?)
Peter was really willing to die for Jesus on Holy Thursday – until he realized that this is not the Messiah he had signed up for. The predictions of death were clearly not metaphors or exaggerations… but he did not yet understand that neither were the predictions of resurrection. He had been thinking like men, not like God. His paradigm of Messiah qua warlord-politician was ruined when Jesus submitted to the soldiers, and so Peter too was ruined. It turns out that in some sense he really did not know the man. “How will Jesus lead the war against those dreadful Romans now?” He will indeed lead a war against Rome, but in a spiritual way that shows even them Divine mercy and love.
All this brings me, oddly, to the Book of Jonah. When read correctly, there is hardly a book in the Old Testament which more bluntly and richly explains the Christ’s agenda in such a short space. Of course, we read Christ speak about the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12: 38-41) – a clear reference to the Resurrection – but there is more to it than that.
Jesus Christ is the New Jonah – not only in the sense of “fulfillment” but also of correction. See if you can find some paradoxical connections to the Gospels in this summary.
Jonah so deeply hates the Assyrians (Gentiles) that he would rather die than tell them that God loves them. After all, they have historically been at war with Israel. But even before he turns to obey God’s command to preach in Nineveh, Jonah is a successful evangelist. Sleeping on the pagan sailors’ boat during a storm as he is disobediently running away from Nineveh as far as he can, he awakens to tell them that he is the cause of the danger. With this short sermon alone, they all become fervent devotees to the God of Jonah, probably, we can infer, much to Jonah’s displeasure. These new fervent worshipers of the God of Israel commend the soul of Jonah to that same God’s care, asking that his blood not be on their hands as they throw him into the sea to meet his fate. While Jonah wishes for death, he seems not to get it, although we are left wondering if he died in the belly of the whale and yet rose again. His prayer therein is not repentant – apparently he finds no guilt in himself – but he does offer obedience. He is spit onto land again and preaches a five word sermon in Nineveh which simply threatens destruction. He does not say what is wrong with Nineveh, he does not say how to avoid the impending punishment, and he does not even mention God. The entire city converts, which Jonah is furious about. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen, and a plant grows over him. The shade is wonderful, but soon a worm eats the plant and it dies – Jonah wishes for death again, selfishly complaining to God about His mercy on Nineveh but not on the plant. God disagrees. The end.
Christ loves the Gentiles so much that He wants to die for them. Start the reinterpretation there. The end of the story is the real kicker for Jewish nationalism… According to St. Augustine, the worm which attacks Jonah’s plant represents Christ; the plant represents the Old Covenant and its favors. (Think of the cursing of the fig tree during Holy Week.) It was there for a while due to God’s own superabundant favor, and now it disappears, making everyone equal under the sun. The “Jewish moment” is over. It was only a pedagogue, mainly about the fidelity of God to His promises. Now a greater promise must be fulfilled… And keeping this in mind, many of the parables and activities of Christ are split wide open to a new logic, along with more understanding of the offense taken at the Lord’s attitude toward the Nations. (The workers who are late to the vineyard, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the discussion with the woman at the well… all these and more lend themselves in part to the exploration of this theme.) The Jews are not special in themselves: salvation is for everyone, even the descendants of the wicked Esau and Ham. The Temple curtain has been torn from top to bottom, as God made His escape from Jerusalem out into the Nations. The Lord’s own garment, woven from top to bottom, has not been torn, while He died just outside the Holy City, shedding His Blood upon the new doorpost and lintel which is broad enough for the whole world to enter in and receive the safety of God’s protection from everlasting death. That blessed Plant, the Cross, will protect us from the heat of Hell’s fire, which will make us wish for another death that will never come.
There should be no question of the historical existence of the person of Jonah. We hear about him in 2 Kings 14: 23-25 – where he delivers a prophecy which will, ironically, be reversed by Amos (Amos 6: 13-14) – and a hermeneutic of faith urges us to read the Sacred Text open to the astounding and miraculous intervention of God in the history of the Chosen People. Compared to the Paschal Mystery, the miracles contained in the Book of Jonah are mere shadows. Trying to “demythologize” these or other miraculous signs without a serious reason to suspect a metaphorical intention on the author’s part indicates an unhealthy attitude towards Divine Providence and an under-appreciation for the significance of the New Covenant. Perhaps the single biggest problem among basically orthodox theologians today is a fear of being “fundamentalist” with regard to the run-up to the Incarnation. As if it were somehow naive to believe as the Jews of 1st Century Israel believed. What we need in order to appreciate the kerygma as fully as possible in this life is the shameless acceptance of full-throated and unabashed Judaism as the real preparation for the advent of the Messiah. That is not my opinion – it is what God actually wrought upon the Earth. He chose to enter into a people who at least believed these things were generally real, literal history. After all, how can we really understand and appreciate the silent and invisible things of the New Covenant on Calvary if we can’t even acknowledge the reality of some thunder and smoke on Sinai? I don’t mean to impute sin to those who hesitate here; I only mean to say that such hesitation is typically unnecessary, inappropriate, nonsensical, and can render theology and even the spiritual life quite sterile. The most carefully planned event in history was the Incarnate Word’s earthly life. We should read the Scriptures with this in mind, no?
In its extreme, this program of “demythologization” prevents the entrance into the spiritual life. Creation is through the Son, the Word. It follows that human existence – and all of creation – is in some profound sense itself a story, or a myth, as it were, into which God Himself enters as the central character, first indirectly, then directly, now half-directly, later to be fully direct once more when the story is finished. Without acknowledging the need for a Savior who will open the way to eternal life by redeeming one from sin and overcoming death, there is a fundamental frustration of what God designed humanity for. The story wouldn’t really make sense. Without faith, it is impossible to please God – one must believe He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him, in particular through grace and personal love, even if this is only dimly perceived (cf. Hebrews 11:6). The tendency to fight one’s own deepest in-built supernatural longings is a self-imposed darkness – a rejection of the Light which is already shining in all creation. We are always free to destroy ourselves in this way, and we always will choose to do so without God’s special mercy. Even with every indication and sign available – including countless miracles, visions, and wonders down to our own day – without His ongoing support and personal “invasion” of the Canaan of our souls, we would drown in the misery of our self-absorption and fixate on God’s created gifts rather than on the God Who is giving them. So let no man boast except in the Cross and its Victim. Jesus rose from the dead. No more gloomy despair from Qoheleth is warranted: in the light of His Resurrection, and in this light alone, by which He has drawn all the Nations to Himself, human existence, and each person’s own individual existence, at last make sense. Anything to the contrary is a chase after wind. And we should be able to see that.