Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Importance of the Nineveh Lent in Syriac Orthodox Church

The three day let originated in Syriac Orthodox Christian tradition and then spread to other oriental orthodox traditions including the Coptic and Armenian Churches. The Origin of this feast was to commemorate a miraculous cessation of plague which broke out in the region of Beth-Gammae. When stuck with disaster, the faithful of the place gathered in the church to pray and began to do great acts of penance and the plague ceased suddenly. Since it is observed for three days, it is known also as moonnu nombu in Malayalam. It is a common practice in most of the church to have the Vasantha prarthana yajnam also during this lent by carrying lighted candles and reciting the special prayer (mar aprem's memera during the time of distress and plague).

Traditionally in Syriac Orthodox Church, Holy Eucharist is celebrated only at the end of the fasting and not during the other days of the lent.

It is not worthless that the Syriac Orthodox Church has canonized this blessed fast at this special time, while approaching to the Holy Forty Days Fast (i.e., the Great Lent). The words "forty days" have a special importance because we are approaching a death that Christ went through for the sake of all humanity. In other words Christ died in exchange for the destruction of the humanity. All of humanity was under threat of destruction and annihilation in no lesser way in Christ's day than when the world was annihilated by the forty days flood, which came on it because of the escalation of sin at that time. The impending crisis led to the only begotten Holy Son to leave His glory, put on humanity, and suffer to save the world. He died Himself as ransom for destruction of human, rose from the dead, so that His death and resurrection would become an endless source of repentance and salvation. He became a sign for whoever desires to see it - not just so that men could have a sign from heaven: "We wish to see a sign from you" (Matt 12: 38), but so that they could inherit heaven itself.

It was Christ's death and resurrection, and the Forty Days Fast the Lord undertook for the sake of all humanity, that was the payment for every shortcoming in piety or fasting. It is to be notified that, Baptism is only completed by total immersion in water three times, as in the story of Jonah's descent into the depths of the sea. For this reason, we see that Christ's anointing to serve came at the moment he rose out of the water, as did the encouragement to commence the forty days fast. If we skip ahead in time, or follow the Church ritual, we enter immediately into the week of suffering, then of death and resurrection.

The voice of the Lord came to Jonah saying: "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." But Jonah fled and descended into the depths of the sea (the whale's belly) and remained there for three days. According to the Gospels, Christ descended into the abyss three days and three nights and in Jonah's words: "Out of the belly of Sheol , I cried" (Jonah 2:2). This makes the book of Jonah both practical and visionary, every word and sentence firmly points to Christ. We can consider Jonah to be like John the Baptist in the New Testament, who cried out "Prepare the way of the Lord".

Jonah is a living symbol of Christ. Christ's baptism led Him into the holy forty days lent, then to the cross, and finally to resurrection. This is exactly the same as Jonah descending into the waters prior to going to Nineveh to preach repentance, where he proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in forty days. This contains a hidden sign that forty days were significant in God's plans and was in fact the period of time set for destruction (the Flood). In the fast, the Lord Himself completed that forty days period for the sake of the whole of humanity.

As for the flight of Jonah, it is apparent that he found the message difficult to bear. But after he had descended into the waters and remained there for three days something happened to him. The whale vomited him on the shore and the Lord repeated the original instruction: "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you" (Jonah 3:2). But this time Jonah obeyed him. Spending three days in the depths, it seems, reformed his attitude towards Nineveh.

Something mystical happened here; Jonah's descent into the water - his baptism - was, in fact, a passing through death and resurrection on behalf of Nineveh. The real transformation which the humanity requires occurred. We are already transformed as God's Children through the Holy baptism, but due to the worldly affairs we get stained, and require cleansing. The repentance and remission of sins has to be obtained through these holy lents so as to prepare us to participate in His death and resurrection once again. Through this lent, we have to experience the mystical act of God in us, similar to that experienced by Jonah when he was in the belly of the big fish and then saved to the shore of hope; we are saved from the belly of the big whale of sins.

How wonderful are these powerful signs and how magnificent is the Church that, with the right touch, can designate a fast or a special feast! These definitions are inspirational and visionary to us to listen and understand, and not like the Scribes and Pharisees, who asked the Lord to show them a sign whilst ignoring the signs that had already been given.

The Church brings these scriptures into full view during these days so that we can absorb them for ourselves: first from Jonah, and secondly from Nineveh, because Jonah and Nineveh have two messages for our lives.

1. Jonah speaks to us of the Christ who came from afar, and

2. Nineveh severely reproaches us: "The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matt 12:41, 39).

Jonah could not bear to preach destruction. In the gospel of St Luke there is an interesting but very mystical allusion, that reveals a relationship between the warning of Nineveh's people about the great danger they are going to face and the death that Jonah had faced for their sake: "For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation" (Lk 11:30).

An important fact to be notified herein is that people of Nineveh knew that Jonah had passed through the suffering of death in the belly of the whale for three days, and then risen for the sake of their salvation. The Gospel of St Luke here means that as Jonah, in his person and not only through his mission, was a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of man also, in Himself, is a sign to this generation, through His death and resurrection.

For us it is very difficult to say much about Jonah's experience during those three days and nights, but are sure of the impact of Christ's three days and nights in the abyss, and His resurrection:

"He led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men" (Eph 4:8).

Jonah went and preached to the people of Nineveh to spare them from God's anger, through the suffering of his death and his preaching! It seems that he told them what had happened to him.

Another very interesting and important thing to notify here is that, what happened in Nineveh. As soon as the king knew what had happened to Jonah, and heard his preaching, he rose from his throne, took off his royal clothes, laid aside his pomp, beauty and vain pride, and put on sackclothes. All the people put on sackclothes, which is a robe made of goats' hair, very rough on the skin.

He ordered that food should be withheld from everyone, old and young, even the infant at the mother's breast, and even all the animals. How terrible! It is as if the whole of creation is included in Nineveh's three days of repentance.

A city with one eighth of a million inhabitants, all of whom repented, and the Lord forgave them because of the determined collective repentance and the astute leadership of that just and conscientious king, who was able, through his wisdom, to avert the sentence of death from his people. What a wonderful example of the concern and wisdom of the shepherd! Are we lacking such good shepherds these days? Whether it should be a matter of concern for the church to lead its sheep to its left and to its right so that they may not become the lost sheep and not at all able to find them.

So, it is not because of a sign in heaven or earth that humankind will repent and have its sins forgiven, but through humility, fasting, prayer and a meekness of heart before the Omnipotent God!

As far as we realize our sins, though they are numerous, we have to repent our sins, have to turn to God, so that He will forgive our sins as St Peter says in Acts 3-18.

Beware of ourselves that, if the times of refreshment are hindered then the fault is ours. Nineveh was striding swiftly and surely towards the deep pit of destruction, but through taking a courageous and honest stand in response to the warning of judgment, it managed to obtain for itself a pardon from heaven.

Do we feel that it is very difficult for us to undergo this repentance and thereby receive the blessing of Almighty God? Remember that Nineveh's king, people, women, children, and cattle knew the quick way to safety. What is hindering us, making us turn right and left, asking for the advice of old and young alike, while the door of salvation stands open before us? Nineveh sets us an example of how simple and sincere repentance is able to open up the doors of heaven and bring forth a total amnesty for the inhabitants of a whole city, without exception - a city, which the Bible tells us, that did not know its right from its left.

As we approach the holy forty days, we need humble hearts like those of the king of Nineveh and his people. The mere mention of the fasting cattle bent over their troughs is a reproach because when I turn to my own soul I found within me the vicious haughty beasts of a lion among deer. How many instincts I have within my soul that need to be humiliated by hunger and sackclothes! O city of the Lord, how full my soul is with these things! How wonderful it is for my soul to sit like Nineveh in holy sackcloth and ashes! During these holy three days lent and the holy forty days it is good for you, my soul, to bind all your fierce, animal instincts, and not to think you are the daughter of the great city that knows its right from its left, because sin is not overcome except by him who has tasted that, which Nineveh have tasted.

The sign of Nineveh is not in any way inferior to the opening of the eyes of the blind, feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish, the coin found in the mouth of the fish or the changing the water to wine.

The sign of Nineveh surpassed every sign except for Christ's death and resurrection. The distinctive of the sign of Nineveh is that it was led to repentance through the call of a prophet. The voice that calls us now is greater than that of any prophet.

Jonah's call was to death or repentance, but Christ offers us His death, a living power, charged with life, and able to resurrect us from sin and death!

Source: ICON;

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Nineveh Lent

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