Jonah and the Dies Cinerum
Lori Evans (email)
As the beginning of Lent is fast approaching, I have been reading and thinking about ashes. Oddly, I ended up in the book of Jonah.
Most of us are familiar with Jonah and the big fish, but less in focus is the story of Nineveh.
During the day of Jonah, Nineveh was “an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth,” with a population of over 120,000 (Jonah 3:3). It was the famed capital of the Assyrian Empire and boasted beautiful palaces and temples for the worship of Ishtar. However, in Jonah, God speaks not of the city’s greatness but of its inhabitants’ evil and violence…of people “who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11).
As I reread this striking story of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, I began to see it is one of repentance and divine mercy. It speaks to us of deliverance from “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:1). The Scripture tells us that when Jonah finally heeded the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh to proclaim in the streets that the city would be overthrown, there was an astounding outcome among the people. “From the greatest to the least of them…they believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). Even the king removed his royal robe, sat in ashes, and called for all to turn from evil so God might relent and all might not die.
The observance of Ash Wednesday is meant to remind us of our story as Ninevites.
As Ælfric, the 10th century Anglo-Saxon homilist expressed it:
“We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes…We strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast” (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266).
Like Nineveh, our Dies Cinerum, the Day of Ashes, is a call to hear the word of the Lord and repent, for indeed One “greater than Jonah is here” (Mt. 12:41). It is our Savior who was “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40), that He might give “beauty for ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,” and we might be called oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:30).