We thank our Byzantine sisters and brothers for the calendar that includes St. Jonah, a saint for anyone (and that’s most of us) who despairs that the mercy of God will cover even those (and that’s most of them) undeserving of such grace. We can only imagine Jonah, were he born many centuries later than his own eighth century BC, sending out Christmas cards with this, or a similar, sentiment,
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel.
The story, told in the Book of Jonah, is this: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city in Assyria (now Iraq), to call the people to repent of their sins. Jonah doesn’t want to go. He’s afraid the people will repent and that God will forgive them. Jonah wants judgment for Nineveh, not mercy.
Poor Jonah. God pardons them all.
Jonah hops on a boat sailing away from Nineveh. When a terrible storm overtakes the boat, Jonah understands that his disobedience has caused this disturbance in the sea and the sky. He tells the sailors to throw him overboard and they oblige. (The sailors aren’t saints, but they certainly are familiar to most of us.)
The sea grows calm and Jonah is kept from drowning by a big fish, which swallows him whole. (Dinner suggestions for a Jonah celebrating his feast day are obvious and easy: whole fish for the entrée or some dessert featuring gummy fish.)
When the fish spits him out on dry land Jonah heads for Nineveh. He preaches repentance and the people repent. Poor Jonah. God pardons them all.
Jonah’s story comes long before the birth of Jesus. But it is part of a growing understanding in Israel that, while our love is marked by strict, and strictly guarded, borders, the love of God cannot be hindered or deterred by our carefully drawn lines. We divide people along according to wealth and class and color and language and ability and productivity, but God does not. The citizens of all the Nineveh’s that are, or ever were, or ever will be, belong to God, who loves them.