Tomorrow, Thursday, the East Church celebrates the “Passover of Jonah” after a three-day fast that ends today, which is known as the “fast of the people of Nineveh” or “the fast of Jonah the Prophet.” The word “Passover” is a Hebrew word meaning “crossing”: as Prophet Jonah crossed from the belly of the great fish that swallowed him- representing death- to outside the belly, i.e. life- before heading to the city of Nineveh. Similarly, the people of Nineveh who lived in sin crossed from the state of evil and corruption to a life of repentance and return to God, through the call of Prophet Jonah for them to repent. This fast was introduced to the Coptic Orthodox Church during the reign of Pope Abram the Syrian (known as “Ibn Zar’a”), the sixty-second patriarch of the See of St. Mark (976-979 AD). The Nineveh Fast precedes the Great Fast by two weeks, and it is a call to return to God through repentance.
The Escaping Prophet
Prophet Jonah, one of the kingdom of Israel’s prophets; he is Jonah, the son of Amittai, from the tribe of Zebulun, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. He was from the city of Gath Hepher, three miles away from the city of Nazareth. Jonah as a name is the Syriac and Arabic version of the Hebrew name “Yunah”, meaning “dove”. Jonah prophesied at a time during 735-793 BC, being a contemporary of King Jeroboam II. The Second Book of Kings mentions that he had prophesied about Jeroboam bin Joash, the king of Israel, that he would restore: “the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.” Prophet Jonah lived for nearly a hundred years.
God commanded Prophet Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh located about half a mile east of the Tigris River in Iraq, it was the capital of the Assyrian state, the strongest and greatest of the world powers at the time, calling its people and warning them of destruction, in a message consisting of five words: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” This is because of the great evils they committed.
Instead of obeying God and conveying His message, Prophet Jonah decided to escape from the face of God! He went to Joppa, took a ship to Tarshish, thinking that escaping would relieve him of the responsibility he had had to shoulder!
Back from Escaping
On the way to Tarshish, the ship sank, and it was discovered that it was because of Jonah! So Jonah was thrown into the sea, and God prepared a big fish that swallowed him, he remained in its belly for three days and three nights, it was an opportunity to have a retreat with himself and God. In the belly of the big fish, Prophet Jonah confronted his own self, calmly realizing his state and that it was because of his escape and refusal to obey God’s commandment. Hence, he began a spiritual conversation with God, raising a deep prayer to Him, in which he said: “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’…“When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple…”
Then the big fish vomited him onto the dry land near Nineveh; so he entered it, announcing God’s warnings to them because of their sins and evils. In response, all of them- beginning with the king to the youngest kid- hastened to offer great repentance, fasting, praying, groveling and weeping, until God had pity on them, accepted their repentance and retreated from His anger, so they obtained salvation and deliverance.
The Mercy of God
The story of Jonah the Prophet expresses God’s mercy and love for all people at all times and places. In this story, we see God’s mercy upon Jonah the Prophet and with the people of Nineveh, as He said to Jonah: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”
The story of Nineveh and Jonah reminds me of the story of an artist who designed a model for a golden door, naming it “the Door of Mercy,” and displayed it in an exhibition. Audience came to watch the model and discuss the design, among whom was a skillful carpenter who said- upon seeing the door- I think the door is very wide, we do not use such measures. The artist replied: I know this, but the Door of Mercy is not ordinary like other doors; It is such wide that it allows entry to all people who ask to pass through it. The carpenter smiled, and said sarcastically: But it is not the only fault in the design of the door; the door is too low that a person difficultly passes through it. The artist said: You are so right, but the Door of Mercy is not allowed for everyone, only the humble who bow down in humility arrogantlessly. The carpenter kept silent for a while, then said: Why is there no key for the door to open and close it?! The artist replied: Because the “Door of Mercy” is always open to whoever wishes to enter through it. Surprised, the carpenter said: Since it needs no key, why then are those locks and bolts placed from the inside?! The artist replied: Because a day will come in which the door will be closed in the face of whoever would refuse mercy at the end of life”.
Happy feast to all of you, and… stories about beautiful Egypt never end!
The General Bishop
Head of the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center