Sackcloth and Gladness

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Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Jonah 3: 1-10
Psalm 50: 3-4, 12-13, 18-19 (R. 19b)
Luke 11:29-32



Nineveh is in the news. Nineveh is, of course, the present day city of Mosul in Northern Iraq, not far from the Turkish border. Its ruins spread over 1800 acres: a huge green space on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. The ancient Nineveh of the Assyrians was an immense city, seven times larger than the Old City of Jerusalem.

The very mention of Nineveh cast fear into every Jewish heart. Sennacherib, the King of Assyria whose palace was in Nineveh, invaded Judah in the days of King Hezekiah. To placate Sennacherib, Hezekiah gave him “all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house” (2 K 18:15). He even “stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord” (2 K 18:16) and gave it to Sennacherib. God intervened to save Jerusalem from the invading Assyrians. “The angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. . . . Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home, and dwelt at Nineveh” (2 K 19:35-36).

Stupendous Repentance

Knowing something of the background of Nineveh helps us to understand that the repentance of the Ninevites was something stupendous. God sets Nineveh before the eyes of His own people as an example of penitence, a model of conversion. The Israelites were stubborn in resisting the message of the prophets. Rather than repent, they rejected the prophets and contested them. They turned a deaf ear to their message. They discussed, debated, and procrastinated.

Sackcloth and Ashes

The Ninevites, on the other hand, responded immediately to Jonah’s preaching. No discussions. No haggling over the details. No attempt to justify themselves. No negotiations. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jon 3:5). The movement of repentance rose from the grassroots.

Let Every One Turn From His Evil Way

The conversion of Nineveh began, not by royal edict at first, but in the hearts of the people “Then tidings reach the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon 3:6). Only then did the king make his proclamation: “Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from His fierce anger, so that we perish not?” (Jon 3:8-9).

God’s Change of Heart

God was touched by the penitence of the Ninevites. The heart of God was moved, turned around. God repented because Nineveh repented. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which He had said He would do to them; and He did not do it” (Jon 3:10). Jonah’s message is considered so essential to Judaism that it is read annually in synagogues all over the world on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.

Judged by the Ninevites

In the Gospel Our Lord holds up Nineveh as a model of penitence. He contrasts the repentance of the Ninevites with the hard hearts of those who resist Him, refuse Him, and treat Him with indifference. “The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Lk 11:32).

Learning from the Ninevites

“Something greater than Jonah is here” (Lk 11:32). Here, in our midst, Christ himself — “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30) — is present in Word and Sacrament. Does the story of Nineveh make any difference in our lives? In what way might it change our approach to Lent.

The Divine Initiative

First, it demonstrates that in every conversion story, the initiative is God’s. It is God who comes in search of us, sending us a prophet, or many prophets, appealing to us by means of signs. At times, in His severe and tender mercy, God permits that we should suffer, if by suffering, we might turn to Him in our hearts.

Corporate Penitence

Second, the response of the Ninevites was not individualistic and private. It was social and corporate. Individualism is utterly foreign to the biblical model of a people fashioned into the one Body of Christ, responding to His love as His one Bride. It follows that penitence, while it touches the heart of each one, must find a corporate, social expression.

The whole city of Nineveh became involved in the movement of repentance. Saint Benedict provides for the very same thing in the Rule: Lent is intensely corporate. Lent is an undertaking of the whole community, modifying its schedule: eating, working, sleeping, reading, and praying at different hours. Lent affects us not only individually, but socially. We are in movement toward the Pasch of the Lord together.

The Father Comes Out to Meet Us

Third, the response of God to penitence is immediate. God finds the “humbled, contrite heart” (Ps 50:17) irresistible. No sooner do we set our foot on the path of penitence, than the Father comes out to meet us. “While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20). To the penitent the Son opens the refuge of His pierced Heart, and in exchange for a single tear, He gives the torrent of His Precious Blood. The Holy Spirit envelops the penitent in a cloud of refreshment and peace. God waits to show His mercy. He watches for the smallest sign of repentance and responds by opening the floodgates of His mercy.

Repenting All the Way to the Altar

This is what happens mystically in every Mass. God takes the initiative: He speaks through the prophets and apostles and, in the Gospel, He speaks through His Son, calling us to conversion. The Word, rightly heard, compels us to go to the altar for the Holy Sacrifice, the mystery of the Covenant. Compunction and contrition are perfected in covenant, in the mystical “coming together” effected by the Eucharist.

The Priest Penitent

When the priest goes to the altar, he does so in the name of all. He stands before the altar representing all, pleading for all, bearing the repentance of all in his heart. Repentance becomes an inward readiness for the Eucharist, for identification with Christ, Victim and Priest.

That My Soul May Praise Thee

In Holy Communion, Christ, responding to the response of penitence that His grace in us has made possible, draws us intimately to himself in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Giving us the mysteries of His sacred Body and precious Blood, He lifts us into His own face-to-face with the Father. The bitterness of penitence is ordered to the sweetness of the Eucharist. “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to thee forever” (Ps 29: 11-12).


Thank you, Father. That was an excellent reflection on today's readings and I feel spiritually nourished by it.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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