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The Sign of Jonah
The Sign of Jonah

A Transforming Passion

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

In Holy Week, we know that resurrection and hope are on their way, but not before we face with Jesus the despair of betrayal, abandonment, and death. Brother John of Taizé compares Jesus’ passion to Jonah’s experience of the deep sea:  

Jesus is brought to the lowest place, that place where the all-loving God seems infinitely distant. He enters a universe of utter solitude, meaninglessness, and fragmentation. Like the prophet Jonah, he is overwhelmed by chaos: “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood surrounded me; all your billows and waves have submerged me … The waters closed over me; the deep engulfed me” (Jonah 2:3, 5; Matthew 12:39–40).  

Does this mean that hope has been extinguished once and for all? Is the mission of Jesus a failure? [1] 

For CAC faculty emerita Cynthia Bourgeault, the passion of Jesus reveals a wisdom that enables us to “turn the tide” from despair to empowerment in our own lives: 

The passion is really the mystery of all mysteries, the heart of the Christian faith experience. By the word “passion” here we mean the events which end Jesus’s earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death.…  

So much bad, manipulative, guilt-inducing theology has been based on it that it’s fair to wonder whether there is any hope of starting afresh. I believe wisdom does open up that possibility. The key lies in … reading Jesus’s life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment. In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life…. 

[Jesus] certainly lived in a very intense way the ordeals of betrayal, abandonment, homelessness, and death. Did it have to be like that? If he were indeed here on a divine mission, it would seem that he could have been given an easier career path: chief priest, political leader, the Messiah that people expected him to be…. But none of these opportunities materialized. Why not? Because the path he did walk is precisely the one that would most fully unleash the transformative power of his teaching. It both modeled and consecrated the eye of the needle [DM team: or the belly of the whale] that each one of us must personally pass through in order to accomplish the “one thing necessary” here, according to his teaching: to die to self. I am not talking about literal crucifixion, of course, but I am talking about the literal laying down of our “life,” at least as we usually recognize it. Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system into the kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood. His mission was to show us how to do this. [2]  


[1] John of Taizé, Life on the Edge: Holy Saturday and the Recovery of the End Time (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 32. 

[2] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2008), 104, 105–106. 

Image Credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Jenna Keiper, Photo of a beloved artpiece belonging to Richard Rohr (Artist Unknown.) McEl Chevrier, Untitled. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

One of Richard Rohr’s favorite art pieces about the prophet Jonah and the whale. 

Story from Our Community:

I’m facing a transitional time in my life. I’m beginning wonder if it is time to retire after many years of leading a congregation. I find myself asking many questions: Am I becoming the “bitter old pastor” that I never wanted to become? What happens next for my small community of faith if I let go of this present call? What happens next for me? Why am I struggling so much with all this? I’m addressing these questions by practicing centering prayer and Lectio Divina with others and in solitude. These practices have become my saving grace over the past 6 months. I have not yet found the answers to my questions—but I am making peace with living with them. —Dennis M. 

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