The Paschal Mystery & the Sign of Jonah

Apr 6, 2023 | 0 comments

The crowds got even bigger and Jesus addressed them, ‘This is an evil generation; it is asking for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah.’ (Luke 11:29)

What could Jesus have meant by this reference to a character from an ancient Jewish story? Here is an explanation from the Centre for Action and Contemplation , founded by the renowned Francisan spiritual teacher Richard Rohr.

A Transforming Passion

In Holy Week, we know that resurrection and hope are on their way, but not before we face with Jesus the despair of betrayal, abandonment, and death. Brother John of Taizé compares Jesus’ passion to Jonah’s experience of the deep sea:

Jesus is brought to the lowest place, that place where the all-loving God seems infinitely distant. He enters a universe of utter solitude, meaninglessness, and fragmentation. Like the prophet Jonah, he is overwhelmed by chaos: “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood surrounded me; all your billows and waves have submerged me … The waters closed over me; the deep engulfed me” (Jonah 2:3, 5; Matthew 12:39–40).  Does this mean that hope has been extinguished once and for all? Is the mission of Jesus a failure? 1

For CAC faculty emerita Cynthia Bourgeault, the passion of Jesus reveals a wisdom that enables us to “turn the tide” from despair to empowerment in our own lives:

The passion is really the mystery of all mysteries, the heart of the Christian faith experience. By the word “passion” here we mean the events which end Jesus’s earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death.…

So much bad, manipulative, guilt-inducing theology has been based on it that it’s fair to wonder whether there is any hope of starting afresh. I believe wisdom does open up that possibility. The key lies in … reading Jesus’s life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment. In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life….

Jesus certainly lived in a very intense way the ordeals of betrayal, abandonment, homelessness, and death. Did it have to be like that? If he were indeed here on a divine mission, it would seem that he could have been given an easier career path: chief priest, political leader, the Messiah that people expected him to be…. But none of these opportunities materialized. Why not? Because the path he did walk is precisely the one that would most fully unleash the transformative power of his teaching. It both modeled and consecrated the eye of the needle  that each one of us must personally pass through in order to accomplish the “one thing necessary” here, according to his teaching: to die to self. I am not talking about literal crucifixion, of course, but I am talking about the literal laying down of our “life,” at least as we usually recognize it. Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system into the kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood. His mission was to show us how to do this. 2

These daily reflections come as emails free-of-charge from the Centre for Action and Contemplation, founded and led by the renowned Franciscan spiritual teacher Fr Richard Rohr.  To sign up for these, click here.



  1. John of Taizé, Life on the Edge: Holy Saturday and the Recovery of the End Time (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 32.
  2. Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2008), 104, 105–106.


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