From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,Jonah 2:1-4
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
Jonah’s prayer inside the fish is one of the most overlooked parts of this book. Often it seems like nothing more than a poetic interlude and we want to keep moving to the next part of the story, to the drama of Jonah being vomited onto dry ground. But I am a poet so I love poetic interludes, and I’m also curious about much that features in this prayer. First, it’s essentially a collage of other biblical prayers, full of references to the Psalms which Jonah draws on to have words for this otherwise unprecedented experience. But it’s also curious in the story it tells: a story in which God seemingly answers Jonah’s distress by sending him into the deep and making a giant fish swallow him. Neither of these circumstances are how I would typically want God to deliver me from a storm at sea. Yet God is delivering him from more than the storm; He’s delivering him from all the things that have made him run from God. To do this work in Jonah, God isn’t simply going to spare Jonah any trial. Instead, He is going to send Jonah right into darkness in order to teach him about God’s light.
I’ve often been frustrated by how Southern hemisphere summers detract from Advent’s symbolism of longing for the coming of the light. When it’s daylight until 9pm, I rarely find myself longing for light. Here again I need Jonah to remind me: sometimes the best way to encounter God’s light is to open up the dark spaces inside ourselves. Jonah’s dark spaces were his tribalist hatred of neighbour and his transactional view of God’s mercy. Mine are a sense of resentment when God’s mercy does not accord me the comforts and affirmation I think that I need. In an Australian summer, on the brink of Christmas, it can be all too easy to ignore those dark emotions until they get the better of us. Yet God often calls us to enter them with Him – and this is expressed in no better way than the life of Jesus: entering the darkness of the womb for nine months, the darkness of imperial infanticide at the time of his birth, the darkness of poverty and oppression, the darkness of persecution, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the tomb.
Jesus told those asking for a sign that He would only give them the sign of Jonah. Like Jonah, He entered deepest darkness for three days. Yet He was not overwhelmed by the darkness; even there He is strong, stronger than death. And so we, like Jonah, can encounter Him in the dark. Like Jonah, we might even be taken into the dark to save us from our own hidden darkness. We shouldn’t be surprised if that happens; it was the very thing that Jesus came to earth to do.