In the North nave aisle of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford is a wonderful window dated 1631, called Jonah surveying Nineveh. It was done by Abraham Van Linge, a Flemish artist working in England in the 17th century and is a composition of stained glass, the figure of Jonah, and painted glass everything else. Visitors are fascinated by its subject matter and composition; there is Jonah under his gourd tree looking at Nineveh a brilliant sun-blazing overhead.
For me there is a greater poignancy in that image than just the intended fate of the city under the judgment of God, which I will explain.
In the passage from Jonah 3, which forms the portion of our first reading two verses are left out, I'm not sure why, for they show that the message of the Prophet has been understood and heard and the King himself changes the direction of their lives ordering for all the inhabitants, a fast and the imposition of sackcloth and ashes, for he says: "Who knows? God may again repent and turn from his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish." (Jon 3:7) In this story Nineveh is saved and the point at which Jonah realises this is the subject matter of our window.
Yet I look at that window and think of our Middle Eastern Christian Communities. Nineveh is modern day Mosul and the tomb of the prophet Jonah and the tomb of St George have been a place of veneration for Christians and Muslims over the course of nearly two millennia. Here was perhaps one of our oldest Christian Communities in existence, and said to have been founded by Thomas the Apostle in the first century. Largely Aramaic speaking the biggest of the Christian groups happens to be the Catholic Chaldean Church. Yet under ISIS what did not happen under Jonah nearly took place. In 2014 the tomb of the prophet was blown up, other shrines, mosques and churches disappeared and it was said that the last Christian was about to leave as it was too dangerous to be a Christian under that regime.
So that Oxford window, at least in my mind became, a pilgrimage place where one could pray, looking up not into the destructive sun about to burn Nineveh-Mosul, but a smiling sun who becomes in our prayers, Christ the sun of righteousness. The quality of mercy is what begins to shine, so that through our repentance and fasting, our acceptance of the call of Jesus to believe in the Good News leads to change, new growth. As Simon, Andrew, James and John were called so we are called too! The words of Jesus are addressed to us: "This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mk 1:15)
And so instead of destruction something else took place. This Christmas Christians returned to Mosul for the first time since ISIS was driven out: "Our faith and our hope was to be here to evangelise on our earth and in our town," Father Thabet Habib told The Telegraph. "This pushed us to come here and to celebrate the mass and to tell all the world that we are here as Christians."(Telegraph December 24 2017). In solidarity with those persecuted for faith, all those living in places of danger and destruction, we too must evangelise and proclaim the Good News by our lives!
Hymn by Charles Wesley
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o'er the shades of night:
Day-spring from on high, be near:
Day-star, in my heart appear.
Dark and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by thee,
Joyless is the day's return,
Till thy mercy's beams I see;
Till thy inward light impart,
Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.
Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin, and grief,
Fill me, Radiancy Divine,
Scatter all my unbelief,
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.
Poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Men Go To God
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when He is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.