My Homily at the annual Downtown Lenten Ecumenical Service at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 25, 2015.
[Scripture Readings - Jonah 3:1-10 and Luke 11:29-32]
Once upon a time, the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh was the largest city in the world. On the eastern side of the Tigris, right across the river from the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, its ruins still remind us of its onetime greatness.
It was to that enormously large city, which it took three days to go through that our great Lenten preacher, the prophet Jonah, once went preaching repentance. To this day, some of the ancient Churches in the Middle East commemorate Jonah’s mission with a three-day fast, called the Fast of Niniveh. And, until last year, among the ruins of Nineveh was a shrine believed to be the site of Jonah's tomb, revered as such by both Christians and Muslims, a popular place of pilgrimage – until the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) conquered Mosul, expelled its Christian community, and on July 24 destroyed Jonah’s tomb as part of its campaign of destruction and desecration.
Jonah’s mission and Nineveh’s repentance were already ancient history by Jesus’ time, when Jesus himself cited it as a warning to his contemporaries – an evil generation, that seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given it, except the sign of Jonah.
Likewise, the Lenten liturgy returns each year to this story of Jonah – because, after all, what generation isn’t evil, what generation doesn’t seek a sign, and what other sign is there for every generation to remember and relive but the sign of Jonah?
Lent is the Church’s annual wake-up call to take to heart the preaching of Jonah, as did the hard-hearted king and people of Niniveh, and to join with them in the ashes of repentance – so that, through that simple movement of letting ourselves be turned around by the power of God’s word we may experience that change of heart which we call conversion and repentance, and so we too, like the king and people of Niniveh, may find the forgiveness that brings life.
In this way will we also, as Pope Francis has said, “receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent, or prey to the globalization of indifference.”