If your ward happens to be just a little bit behind on the Sunday School lessons, you might experience the synchronicity of having the Book of Jonah read on Yom Kippur. This year, the Jewish holiday falls on September 18 (close enough to Sunday the 19th!) and Jonah is traditionally read as part of the celebration.
Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest and most widely observed day on the Jewish calendar. It is a day of fasting, lengthy confession of sins, prayer, and repentance. Jonah’s prophecy is included in the liturgy for that day as a symbolic spiritual journey that each person undertakes. I think the symbolism in Jonah’s story is very meaningful and I’d like to explore it in depth here.
The message of Jonah’s prophecy resonates within the human soul. We are born with a subconscious realization of the fact that we have a mission. We seek escape, because our mission is often one that we are afraid to attempt. Jonah’s story begins when he is given a mission from the Lord and he flees to Joppa and there boards a ship to Tarshish. These places actually exist, but the meaning of the names of these cities are “beauty” and “wealth.” We comfort ourselves externally by escaping from our inner knowledge of our mission through the pursuit of wealth, and by surrounding ourselves with worldly beauty.
The water journey is powerfully symbolic in literature. Beginning with ancient sources in a number of cultures and languages, a hero’s voyage across the waters evokes adventure, danger, growth, and self-discovery. Included in this canon is the ancient Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh: one man’s search for immortality. Although widely known for its parallel to the Biblical story of the Flood, this is a work which stands on its own. It illuminates human relationships, experiences and feelings: loneliness, love, loss, revenge, regret, endurance, joy and sorrow, and the fear of oblivion that comes with death. The Celtic narrative of Brendan the Navigator is a water quest designed to bring him into engagement with God. His journey is cyclic; it takes he and his fellow travelers seven years to arrive at a place that was never so far from their starting point. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a more modern water journey — an exploration of the significance of nature in a world characterized by religious uncertainty. In all of these pieces, the human on a quest for immortality learns something important about death and life, the Divine, and his own inner soul.
In these water journeys, the ship is meaningful and symbolic of the human body. We face moments in life in which the fragility of our bodies is inescapable, as in when we face illness, or confront times of danger that seem to last an eternity until they are resolved. Jonah’s weakness is apparent in the story, but he also shows moments of triumph, as when he asks the sailors to cast him into the sea so that they may continue their voyage unencumbered; or when he prays in the belly of the great fish. As with Jonah, our recognition of our own vulnerability can bring us to finally transcend our ego, surrendering our desire to control events, and beginning at last to accept our mission in life, no matter what it is. We can suffer the vicissitudes of life, and recognize that we ourselves have caused the storms to toss us back and forth. We can move forward to fulfill our purpose, but we are still not free of conflict and anxiety until we finally recognize that every step along the way, we are embraced by Divine compassion.
The great fish is the symbol of confrontation of the recognition that our ultimate fate is the grave. Each must have his or her days of darkness in the belly of the fish, facing the reality of death. For some, that recognition almost feels like a welcome refuge. For others, facing death forces them at last into pursuing life!
Finally, notice that with his desire to escape his mission, Jonah did not fear failure. His fear was that his preaching would have an effect on the pagan people he was sent to, and they would also become God’s chosen people. No, he wasn’t afraid of failure, but success! This reminds me of an excerpt from Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela):
Our Greatest Fear —Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Jonah is hardly the only prophet who was reluctant to respond to God’s call. Even Moses, the greatest of all prophets, tried to persuade God to send somebody else. Jonah was not the only prophet to show human weakness. But in the end, Jonah’s tale even becomes a symbolic representation of the Savior, when the Lord identifies the three days and nights in the fish’s belly as analogous with what he himself will have to face (Matt 12:39-41). Through his spiritual journey, Jonah learned to “think different“: to embrace his mission, to accept and work with his unique talents and failings, to develop compassion for his fellow man.
It is then that we are ready to return to God. While for each of us the path is our own, and never yet explored by any other person, Jonah knew the beginning and the end of the journey that we all make.