In the earliest Christian art, the most popular representation is the Good Shepherd, a David-like figure carrying a lamb over his shoulders. After the Good Shepherd, the most popular figure is… wait for it….
Yep, Jonah. Images of Moses, Daniel, the three Hebrew young men protected within the furnace, and many other Old Testament figures are there, but not as commonly as Jonah. Why would that be?
The symbolism is pretty easy to put together. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days. Christ was in the tomb for three days. Jonah becomes an archetype of Christ.
Part of what is so striking about this is the emphasis upon waiting, the three days in the tomb. We commonly focus on Easter, and sometimes on Good Friday, but a simple acknowledgement of our waiting on Christ, in the midst of circumstances that seem dark, even hopeless, has been largely abandoned in Protestantism.
Christian beliefs don’t function in isolated pieces. Rather, they work together like the components of an ecosystem. What happens in one area comes to bear in significant ways on other areas of belief. The three days in the tomb, then, presuppose Good Friday and Easter, but they also have their own theological significance that enriches our understanding of Good Friday, Easter, and the rest of the Christian life. Good Friday is a demonstration and acknowledgement of the depth of human sin. In the three days in the tomb we wait within the consequences of sin—pain, loss, sorrow and death. And in Easter, God’s power breaks in amidst all of these, conquering even our great enemy, death.
So back to Jonah…. Perhaps the lived experience of these early Christians reminded them of the three days in the tomb. Yes, their sins had been atoned for, but their lives were still marked by difficulty, pain, and isolation. It wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the earliest days of the faith, just as it isn’t easy to be a Christian for many people today. The three days in the tomb presuppose the forgiveness of our sins, and look forward to God’s great victory, but they also acknowledge that life in the now isn’t easy.
As people of faith, we need to own this. Life isn’t easy. If it is, then you’re not really engaging with the world around you. Forms of Christianity that don’t acknowledge this may attract a great many people, but they will also excel at creating ex-Christians. The paper mache life of blessing without sorrow will fall apart in the first rainstorm. Yes, God loves us, cares for us, and abides with us in the Holy Spirit. Yes, God shows up in unexpected, powerful, miraculous ways. Still… life isn’t easy. The image of Jonah shows us that Christians acknowledged this from the earliest days of the faith.