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The Sign of Jonah
The Sign of Jonah

The Necessary Pattern

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Father Richard describes the sign of Jonah as the pattern of death and resurrection that each of us must walk, as Jesus did:  

This “hearing and keeping” of the Word of God is brilliantly illustrated by what appears to be a central metaphor for Jesus: “the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29–30). He says it is the only sign that he will give! (Take note, seekers of miracles, apparitions, and healings).  

He seems willing to offend the “even bigger” crowd in front of him and says it is an “evil generation that wants signs,” something I myself would be afraid to say. Yet it is clear that Jesus is now clarifying the core of his message, the mystery of faith. Augustine later called it the “paschal mystery” and it is celebrated at every Eucharist: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”  

Without the sign of Jonah—the pattern of new life only through death (“in the belly of the whale”)—Christianity remains a largely impotent ideology, another way to “win” instead of the pain of faith. Or it becomes a language of ascent instead of the treacherous journey of descent that characterizes Jonah, Jeremiah, Job, John the Baptizer, and Jesus. After Jesus, we Christians used the metaphor “the way of the cross,” though unfortunately, it became “what Jesus did to save us”—or a negative theology of atonement—instead of the necessary pattern that is redemptive for all of us. Jesus became the cosmic problem-solver instead of the teacher of the path.  

This one great path has also been honored within traditions of Eastern religions: Taoism, yin and yang philosophy, the detachment of Buddhism, and Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. The Jonah-Job-Jesus pattern has been hard for Westerners to recognize and accept, since we are always into ascending and continual progress. But the sign of Jonah is at the heart of the matter. [1] 

In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton (1915–1968) writes of the universal symbolism of the Jonah story, revealed in the imagination of children: 

Frater John of God got a lot of kids’ pictures from a sister in a school somewhere in Milwaukee…. Most of them were of Jonas in or near the whale. They are the only real works of art I have seen in ten years, since entering Gethsemani. But it occurred to me that these wise children were drawing pictures of their own lives. They knew what was in their own depths. They were putting it all down on paper before they had a chance to grow up and forget. They were proving … that there is something in the very nature of [humans] that expects a Redeemer and resurrection from the dead. The sign of Jonas is written in our being. No wonder that this should be so when all creation is a vestige of the Creator but also contains, written everywhere, in symbols, the economy of our Redemption. [2]  


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Good News According to Luke: Spiritual Reflections (New York: Crossroad,1997), 152. 

[2] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1953, 1981), 341. 

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:

The Daily Meditations and other writings of CAC have been a rich blessing to my husband and I for many years. Three weeks ago, I was with my husband as he peacefully passed away. During the last several days, I often joined with him in the Yahweh Prayer. In the wake of his death, I have felt complete peace knowing that he and I were, and are, in the Presence. “All will be well…all manner of things will be well.” —Shirley S. 

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