The marvelous book of Jonah, read in its entirety on Holy Saturday, includes a very rich prayer which is obviously intended to be spoken from within the depths of Hades itself – thus its inclusion on Holy Saturday, the day on which Christ is proclaiming liberty to those “in prison.”
Like the phrase from Psalm 139, “Lo if I descend into Hell there art there,” this prayer in Jonah is a poignant reminded both of our ultimate liberation, but, I believe, a constant reassurance of Christ’s abiding presence with us here and now – and not just present to us – but present to the very nature and character of our life and our situation.
I do not have a terribly jaundiced view of the world – but I think that much of human existence is marked by a “hellish” character. Suffering and disease alone give our existence much of this character. In the wealth of our culture we live a strangely bifurcated existence. People tend to stay away from the scenes of actual suffering. Nursing homes are not visited by many people outside of family (and even family may find it difficult). Other areas of poverty and disease are shut away from our view. Strangely enough, most people in our culture have never seen anyone be born or anyone die. The new birthing techniques are at least increasing the number of people who have an idea of what birthing a child is like. But we still die, largely alone.
I say we live a bifurcated (split) existence, because at the very time we avoid real contact with suffering, we make movies about suffering. Thus there are many movies about the holocaust, though our nation did not accept many Jewish refugees at the time. It seems to me that we prefer our experiences to be virtual. Even in sex (of all places) – the porn industry is mushrooming, though most of it does not involve direct contact with another person. (Not to minimize the hideous dangers for children that are coming to light).
With all that in mind, I do not think I exaggerate when I think of the place in which we dwell as somewhat hellish. Perhaps our very avoidance of the hellish character of reality is, in fact, the most hellish aspect of our modern world. Mother Teresa dwelt in one of centers of human suffering, and yet seemed to be in paradise. It’s probably we who live virtually free of such reality who are truly in a hellish existence. For in the end, hell’s true character is not its existence, but its drive towards non-existence.
Thus it is from the belly of non-existence that we must pray. Prayer is a movement towards an authentic life. God is real and from Him alone reality comes. The God who is beyond all things has come down to us and become one of us. He is here, taking the hand of every Adam and Eve and leading them from the grave of their virtual worlds. Our prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is a petition for God’s Kingdom to come now, and to reign here, in me.
We must not become too comfortable in the belly of the whale. We were not meant to live here. At least the prophet Jonah knew that. We must not seek to make God a part of our hellish reality – reducing Him to mere virtuality. (I think here of the Church in Kentucky that implemented “drive through communion” a few years back).
Neither should we seek to make Church “easier” or more conformed to the age. We’re in the belly of a whale. What we need is to be spewed up onto the land, and not a program for the improvement of whale bellies.
But the Church’s great prayer from the belly of the whale is obvious: “Lord, have mercy.” We cannot say it enough and we cannot say it too often. Have mercy. The belly is dark. Have mercy. The belly wants to digest me and make me its own. Have mercy. This belly stinks. Have mercy. This belly seems endless and all I can hear is the sound of my own voice echoing back at me, mocking my prayers. Have mercy.
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish: saying, “I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, `I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
Lord, have mercy.