“This generation … seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada and a national holiday honoring Columbus in the United States. The Gospel randomly assigned for Mass today prompts us to reflect on the role of the Word of God in human history. Jesus issues a warning to the people of his own day who want a sign he is from God. The only sign they will get, he says, is the sign of Jonah. As the prophet Jonah preached to the Ninevites and they repented, so should God’s chosen people also repent, “for a greater than Jonah is here.”
The civil holidays might seem an odd moment to preach repentance, except that both commemorations beg for deeper reflection. Canada pauses in gratitude for the many blessings First World countries enjoy relative to the rest of the world, and in the United States, we are honoring the Italian explorer Columbus, whose landing in “Hispaniola” set in motion the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.
Another seafaring figure named Jonah preached to Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, the brutal enemy of Israel. The sudden conversion of Nineveh is the comic highpoint of the parable we know as the Book of Jonah. It was unthinkable that such an evil empire would repent and find God’s forgiveness, yet it did repent. Jesus compares that startling repentance to the rejection by his contemporaries of the Good News he was preaching.
The liturgy calls us to be conscious that our material blessings often come at the expense of others in a global economy that exploits and plunders so many to enrich the few. Some might say that the “conquest” of the New World has never ended. Our cultural celebrations are possible only because of historical amnesia.
The Word of God comes to us in today’s Gospel in which we hear the prophetic voice of Spanish Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria, martyred with his companions in El Salvador in 1989 for his eloquent defense of the poor, whom he called the “crucified of history.” If we want a different, more just future, then the trajectory of history set 500 years ago in this hemisphere must be altered.
In his last public address before his death, Ellacuria said this: “There is a lot still to be done. Only utopianism and hope can enable us to believe and dare to try, with all the poor and oppressed people of the world, to turn back history, subvert it, and send it in a different direction.”
A different world is possible. A different world is necessary.