A Kaleidoscope of Theophany

Fasting was the primary injunction given by God to human beings soon after we were created. We were admonished not to consume from the tree of knowledge for we were not yet mature enough but had to grow in perfection in order to do so. Our fallacy of considering this divine commandment to be expendable while yielding to our impatience and sensual pleasures costed our exile from Paradise. St. Basil writes; “If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not need this fasting now…It is because we did not fast that we were banished from paradise. So let us fast that we may return to it.” (First Homily on Fasting 3, 4).[1]

Fasting reminds us that human beings are a composite hypostasis of body and soul and therefore cannot sustain exclusively on bread but need the Word of God as well. Fasting is a divine pedagogy by which we learn to exercise our free will properly. Both body and soul are vested with free will and hence they need to be tamed and trained. As St. Ephrem writes; “Body and Soul go to court to see which caused the other to sin. The wrong belongs to both, for free will belongs to both.” (Nisibene Hymns 69:5).[2] If the improper execution of free will can make even angels demons how much more cautious should we human beings be? This is probably why Christ begins his public ministry with fasting to teach us how we ought to discipline our free will.  

When a rational being voluntarily and continually chooses good his “habit becomes his nature.”[3] This is exemplified by Christ. The temptation of Christ by the devil proves that even Christ was susceptible to temptation however he chose not to succumb to it by practicing obedience unto the death on the cross. Thus we pray in our Prayer of Confession before receiving the Holy Eucharist; “May I prefer death rather than embrace sin.”

Today as the Church begins to observe the Nineveh Lent we cannot evade contemplating on Jonah whose improper execution of free will created havoc not only for the people but also for the entire ecosystem (1:4-5). Jonah is a classic example of how human beings and ecology are interconnected and how the choices we make have substantial impact on the entire ecosystem. Jonah typifies that our refusal to obey the will of God will not only make our lives miserable but also the lives of people associated with us as well as the entire creation.

Free will should not be understood as a liberty to choose randomly just as Jonah did by choosing to go to Tarshish when he was supposed to go to Nineveh. We are not free simply because we can choose but only when our choice would result in the end God has destined. The discordance of the free will exercised by humans is harmonised by God so that it would result in the end which God envisions. God respects the liberty of all creatures and this essential liberty involves persuasion[4] rather than coercion. This divine persuasion is how God, the great educator, would coordinate our apostasy to bring the entire creation to its original unity through many aeons of educative purification until “God may be all in all” (1Cor. 15:28). As Origen exclaims; “How could a mere human mind have come to such a thought: that with the free will of each individual preserved, what is a work of evil for one is turned into a work of salvation for another!”[5] David Bentley Hart further expatiates;

“Sheer choice in and of itself is not freedom. The more irrational a choice, the less free it must be; but, the more one knows, the more rational one’s choices become. But, then, the more free one becomes, the more inevitable become the choices one will make. In a sense, a lunatic has a far larger range of real options than does a sane person, but only because he or she also has far less freedom. The lunatic might choose to run into a burning building on impulse, to see what it will feel like to die in flames; a sane man, because he can form a rational judgment of what can and cannot satisfy his nature, lacks so expansive a “liberty.”[6]

When Jonah finally relents to the will of God the personal transformation that ensues is staggering. Previously in the ship Jonah addressed God as “the God of heaven” (1:9) but while suffering in the belly of the fish he referred to God as “O Lord my God” (2:6). This implies that whenever we concede with the will of God albeit we suffer we develop a much more personal and intimate relationship with God.

Another feature that reveals the unique prominence of Jonah is the reference by Christ. Jonah is the only prophet to whom Christ overtly refers himself to; “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40). Just as Jonah was the only prophet sent to a gentile nation so was the incarnation of Christ to elevate the Church of the gentiles to the bridal status which His original bride (Israel) had reprimanded. Israel the former bride turns into a harlot at the foot of Mount Sinai being seduced by the golden calves (Ex. 32) while the Church of the gentiles repents and receives the bridal status. St. Jacob of Serug identifies the thief on the cross as a representative of the new bride i.e. Church of the gentiles. Ever since Adam left paradise the thief on the cross was the first one to enter it. Thus we sing in the Qolo of Tuesday Matins; “O thief, speak of the beauty of Paradise for our sakes; and show us the tree of life that we may pluck its first fruits of watching, fasting and praying and righteous sacrifices.”

Furthermore it was the Ninevites who taught us the efficacy of fasting. Hence we sing in the Qolo of Tuesday 3rd hour of Nineveh Lent; “The Ninevites taught fasting to those who had discernment. They taught penitents to mourn and taught the debtors freedom. They paved the way for sinners to the door of God’s mercy.” Ninevites through their fasting and repentance forced God to actually reveal what Jonah already knew of Him i.e. to be “compassionate and merciful.” (4:2) Thus St. Ephrem writes;

“The Ninevites believed Jonah’s words but made his sentence of no effect; for they recognized a distinction between God and man; that man was but as man, whereas God was gracious. They saw that the prophet was severe, they concluded that God was gentle. They argued not against him who was severe, but they sought the favour of the Gracious; they attributed justice to the prophet, but goodness to God.”[7]

The book of Jonah is an enigmatic work that invites us to meditate on the unfathomable mysteries of God. After all what else can one do besides stand in awe before God? This is what St. Ephrem did too; “I revered what lay hidden and meditated on what was revealed.” (Hymns on Paradise 1.2).[8] The open-ended question posed by God at the end of the book of Jonah (4:11) underscores that salvation is indeed eco-centric and not just anthropocentric. Overall the book of Jonah appears to be a kaleidoscope of divine revelation. I conclude with the words of Yvonne Sherwood;

“In the strange counter – intuitive world that is the book of Jonah; a prophet can run away from God; Assyrians, epitome of wickedness, can be inspired by a five-word oracle and repent in dust and ashes. The plot can go anywhere, do anything, and the accumulation of ‘who knowses’ and ‘perhapses’ (1:6; 3:9) acts as wry commentary on the infinite possibility and ‘miraculous’ caprice of its development.”[9]

In Christ

Dn. Basil Paul


[1] St. Basil the Great, On Fasting and Feasts, Susan R. Holman and Mark DelCogliano, trans. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2013), 57.

[2] Sebastian Brock, Treasure-House of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2012), 282.

[3] Origen makes this point explicit; “Since the ability to choosing good or evil is present to all, this soul, which is Christ’s, so chose to love righteousness that, in accordance with the immensity of love, it adhered to it unchangeably and inseparably, so that the firmness of purpose and immensity of affection and inextinguishable warmth of love destroyed all thought of alteration or change such that what was dependent upon the will is now changed into nature by the exertion of long usage; and so it is to be believed that there is in Christ a human and rational soul, and yet not to be supposed that it had any thought or possibility of sin.” (On First Principles 2.6.5). Origen, On First Principles, John Behr, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 106.

[4] Origen makes this evident; “And for this reason that God, the Father of all, for the salvation of all his creatures through the ineffable plan of his Word and Wisdom, so arranged each thing, that every spirit or soul, or whatever else the rational beings ought to be called, should not be compelled by force, against the freedom of its own will, to anything other than that which the movement of its mind directs – for in that case the faculty of free will would seem to be taken away, which would certainly change the quality of the nature itself – and that the diverse movements of their wills would be suitably and usefully adapted to the harmony of one world.” (On First Principles 2.1.2) Origen, On First Principles, 74.

[5] Quoted in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, Robert J. Daly, trans. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 338. 

[6] David Bentley Hart, “What is Truly Free Will” https://publicorthodoxy.org/2020/04/24/what-is-a-truly-free-will/?fbclid=IwAR1GRnbe2CZeS-thxy0XEGpPPsgvHMgIhI2FtDnWiWdqVXZ_lhpndQIcCMg. Posted on 04/24/20.

[7] Ephraem Syrus, The Repentance of Nineveh: A Metrical Homily on the Mission of Jonah, Henry Burgess, trans. (London: Robert B. Blackader, 1853), 59.

[8] St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, Sebastian Brock, trans. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1990), 78.

[9] Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in the Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 241.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Deacon Basil Paul for this interesting reflection on Jonah, especially comparing Jonah’s words before he was thrown from the ship, mentioning ‘the Lord the God of heaven’ (1v9), who when Jonah was drowning in the sea became ‘O Lord my God’ (2v6). So that when he died to himself and voluntarily gave up his free will he came to know God personally. This is a very important teaching. The second chapter of Jonah is also important in another way, because it teaches that the bars of Sheol (Hebrew text Jonah 2v2, 6-7) function to prevent resurrection, which are what Christ our Lord was referring to in Matthew 16v18 (Syriac Diatessaron text): “And the bars of Sheol will not withstand it.” Ephrem quotes this Syriac Diatessaron reading in his Commentary on Isaiah, (Lamy 1886, p. 185, line 8) and it often appears elsewhere quoted by early Syriac authors. In the Syriac Diatessaron our Lord was teaching from the Hebrew text of Jonah, that the bars of Sheol cannot function to prevent our resurrection; a rather nice confirmation of his other saying in John 11v26, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

    Liked by 1 person

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