Responding to Christ, the Sign of Jonah, Mercy and Conversion, First Wednesday of Lent, February 17, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
February 17, 2016
Jonah 3:1-10, Ps 51, Lk 11:29-32


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • During this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Lent is particularly important, something Pope Francis himself stressed in his bull of indiction “The Face of Mercy,” saying, “The season of Lent during this Jubilee Year should also be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” and he specifically asked priests “especially during the liturgical season of Lent, [to] be diligent in calling back the faithful ‘to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace’ (Heb 4:16).” A crucial part of that grace of mercy is the flip side of God’s clemency, the recognition of our need for it and the call to conversion.
  • We’re now one week into Lent and the Church today gives us a powerful reminder of the individual and communal conversion that Lent is supposed to bring about in us. Lent is not about a minor course correction in our life but about a big change of heart and ways. It’s not about giving up Pringles and chocolate and thinking that everything else in the world will be fine. It’s a season that’s meant to lead to thorough metanoia for individuals, for the Church, and for the world. Today is a good opportunity for us to see if we’re on the trajectory of tinkering a little with our life or profoundly altering it.
  • In the first reading, we encounter the Prophet Jonah, who was sent by God to the pagan city of Nineveh (modern day Mosul in northern Iraq and former capital of the neo-Assyrian empire) to preach massive conversion. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!,” he exclaimed. The city was huge, taking three days to traverse in one direction, and yet Jonah didn’t have to get to “39 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” This pagan city heard the message immediately, believed God and converted, proclaiming a fast, vesting in sackcloth and sitting in ashes. The King himself divested of his royal armaments and sat in sackcloth and ashes as well, proclaiming a total fast — “neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat nor shall they drink water — and commanding that both persons and animals shall be “covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God.” Most importantly, he decreed that “every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand.” All of this was in the hope that God may forgive them and they may not perish. It was an unprecedented and total conversion and God responded, because as we prayed in the Psalm, he never spurns a contrite and humbled heart.
  • What pagan Nineveh was to the ancient world, so the Church today is meant to be for the contemporary world. If the pagan Ninevites converted so thoroughly at the beginning of the 40 day proto-Lent that Jonah had announced, how much more should we Christians take this season of penance and conversion? If they responded so thoroughly to the message of Jonah, how much more shall we respond to the “greater than Jonah,” Jesus, we have announcing that same message to us? One week ago, he put ashes on our forehead and told us to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” He proclaimed a fast that he called us to do it differently than all the rest. He summoned us to prayer, to almsgiving, to remedying our evil actions and replacing them with good actions. Have we responded as seriously as the Ninevites to this holy summons offered to us anew in this Jubilee of Mercy?
  • We may be tempted to respond, “I’m not that bad!” “I don’t have to repent from a life of crime or debauchery, or from harboring a cesspool of unchristian thoughts or desires.” But our individual conversion is only one part of Lent. There’s another aspect of it, which is communal reparation and conversion. Not everyone in Nineveh was as guilty as the others, but as a whole, Nineveh was a sinful city, and everyone, the good, the bad and the worse, even the innocent pets, repented. Likewise, not just for ourselves but for others we need to repent. Jesus said in the Gospel, “This generation is an evil generation,” and he can say that about every generation. There’s good in every generation, but there’s also evil in every generation. There are lots of great things in our culture, but much evil over which we need to repent. Over the course of this homily, another 40 babies will be legally executed in our country through abortion. We’re disfiguring the institution of marriage, which was part of God’s plans from the beginning, seeking to rend asunder the union of one man and one woman God himself joined by making marriage a husband-less or a wife-less institution. We’re allowed our hearts to harden toward immigrants. We’ve given into the pornification and vulgarization of our television and movie offerings. We’ve turned gossip into an art-form, which magazines and television programs totally dedicated to spreading gossip and rumor. We’re pretending as if sodomy and fornication are pseudo-sacraments rather sins. We’ve legalized marijuana and other drugs are likely on the way. And this is even before we comment on the sins associated with the daily rap sheet. We need to confront that our generation is an evil generation and we need to atone not only for our sins but for the sins of the world. Lent is a time not just of individual conversion but also of reparation for our sins and the sins of others, in which we turn to the Lord and beg for mercy. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important, in my opinion, that we’re praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy during this Jubilee Year, begging God the Father of Mercies, on account of the merits of his Son, to have mercy on us and on the whole world, to thoroughly wash us from our sins, wipe out our offenses, give us a clean heart, and renew his steadfast spirit within us.
  • But it doesn’t stop there. Part of our call as Jesus’ disciples is to become a sign of Jonah for others, a sign of conversion, someone whose own conversion makes other people scratch their heads and wonder why we, with a greater reputation for living our faith, are fasting so much, coming at all times of day to adore the Lord, and sacrificing what we have for others at this time. It can call them to conversion. For those of us who are consecrated to the Lord, we proclaim by our poverty a conversion from the idolatry of money, from our chastity a conversion from the idolatry of sex and pleasure, from our obedience, a conversion from seeking our will above God’s, from our community life, a conversion from our individualism, from our eschatological orientation from our living for the here-and-now. And in our becoming signs of contradiction to the world in union with our chaste, poor and obedience Sign of Contradiction, Jesus himself, we are helping them to open themselves up for the need for mercy. And this is an ever-urgent task. We are called to proclaim, against the wiles of the devil, that we don’t have all the time in the world before we’re going to “be destroyed,” before we’ll breathe our last. When the Ninevites heard that they had only 40 days left, they didn’t waste time in converting. We and others may actually have fewer days left — for we know not the day or the hour — and the time to convert is now. The greatest way we preach conversion to others is not by wagging fingers but by showing the fruits of our own conversion and the joy to which it leads as we are now able to share more in Christ’s own risen life. But like Jonah, we can’t run away from this mission of praying for the conversion of others and seeking it. The first reading began today, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” We know the first time he tried to run away from the mission of calling others to conversion, because it was not a task to which he was looking forward. This morning it might be said that the Word of God is coming to us not just a second time but a 222nd time or some.
  • The sign Jesus gives to every evil age, including our own, is the sign of Jonah. That’s first the sign of preaching conversion. But it’s also his passion, death and resurrection. Just as Jonah was thrown overboard to call the storm, so Jesus was tossed overboard in order to quell the tempest of sin. Just as Jonah spent three days miraculously in the belly of the whale before being returned to shore saved, so Jesus spent three days in the belly of the earth before his resurrection. The sign of greatest conversion is the Cross. When we behold Jesus on the Cross like the serpent lifted up in the desert, we see what our sins did to Jesus and what they do to us, they kill us. That’s why in the Sistine Chapel, there’s a huge image of Jonah right above Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the Crucifix on the altar where the Pope celebrates Mass. But we also know that in the sign of Jonah whom Jesus is there is his resurrection, a clear sign that if we enter into this path of conversion, if we die to ourselves in him, if we toss ourselves into the infinite abyss of his merciful love, then we will experience salvation, so that from living in an evil generation we may pass to living forever with the saints. That’s why at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, in the point-counterpoint series between Old Testament and New Testament scenes that fill up the nave, in counterpoint to Jonah’s being expunged from the whale on the third day we see the sculpture of Jesus’ resurrection. This points to the fact that the call to conversion is a call to live. The call to conversion is not principally about cutting out evil from our life and helping all others in our culture to do the same; it’s principally about the life of joy that we will receive once we do. And that’s what’s offered to us by God in his merciful love.
  • Today as we prepare to receive within us that “greater than Jonah,” we ask Him to help us to convert so fully that we, as his mystical body, may continue to be that sign of conversion, mercy and salvation in the midst of our own Nineveh so that they, too, may experience not destruction but forgiveness and life!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JON 3:1-10

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’s bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.When the news reached the king of Nineveh,
he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath,
so that we shall not perish.”
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19

R. (19b) A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

LK 11:29-32

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them,
“This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.
At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”
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