The Gospel for today’s Mass in the Ordinary Form (Monday 16 February 2015) is a short episode from Mark in which Jesus and the Pharisees engage in a dispute (8:11-13). Despite witnessing many of his marvelous deeds, the Pharisees challenge Jesus and ask him for a sign to prove his righteousness. Jesus rebukes them, saying, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Because the reading was so brief (as is so often with Mark), I felt a little shortchanged. I immediately thought of the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel (12:38-42), worth quoting in full:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” He said to them in reply, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of the Prophet Jonah. As Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so also will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here.
Does not the word of Christ in the Gospel also apply to our time? Have we not become an evil and adulterous generation, turning away from him and his commandments? Do we not all too often seek visible and tangible signs of divine glory before loving him with all our heart? Do we not turn to him only when our lives become mired in tragedy and grief? Are we not enraptured by the positivistic malaise of modern times, in which things metaphysical are discarded in bulk, in favor of only that which we can verify empirically? Do we not all too readily relish in the comforts of our First World lives, ignorant of the radical demands made of us as Christians?
If this be our attitude, surely no sign will be given us, and we will fail to read the signs of the times. If we turn to the Lord wholeheartedly, however, the sign shall be apparent to us.
On the road to Jerusalem, Christ made an explicit prediction of his Passion to the Apostles (Mk. 10:32-45; Mt. 20:17-28; Lk. 18:31-34); but as Luke recounts, “the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.” In Matthew 16 and Luke 12, Jesus tells the disciples, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times!” Our own generation, which has in large measure turned away from the Lord, knows not how to read the sign of the times.
To others, however, the sign of Jonah has once more been delivered. It comes in the form of a video, released on 14 February 2015 (Libyan time), entitled, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross”. In the video, we see 21 Egyptians– 21 Christians of the venerable and Apostolic Coptic Rite, the rite founded by St. Mark the Evangelist– brutally beheaded on the shores of Libya by militants of the so-called Islamic State. The last recorded words of some of these martyrs were, “Jesus, help me”; they did not abandon Christ at the moment of death, and thus we can be sure that they are in Paradise with the Lord. On the very same day, many in the West, blind to the plight of our Christian brothers and sisters, ironically indulged in the lustful and gluttonous perversion of Saint Valentine‘s feast– the feast of him who, like the Egyptian martyrs of recent days, was beaten and beheaded (fustibus caesus et decollatus est) by barbaric men who hate the name of Christ.
Many online accounts and websites hosting footage of the video have been disabled or shut down in recent hours, so I cannot post it here for all to see. But if the video were available, I would absolutely present it here. The full import of what has happened to our brothers in Christ should not be veiled. Every single Christian should see it. We must gaze with horror upon this sinister barbarism– a barbarism that wishes to subjugate the entire world to the law of the Islamic scimitar– so that we might be moved with pity and stirred by anger to action. While I cannot reproduce the video, below are some stills from the footage which leave little to the imagination.
We must not turn our heads for fear of offending our weak, comfortable Western sensibilities. We cannot hide our faces to the rigors of faith imposed upon our brethren in the Middle East. We cannot repeat the great crime of the Apostles on Good Friday, who could not bear to see their Lord scourged and crucified, and who instead abandoned him in the night. Rather, we must have the steadfast faith and courage of the beloved Apostle John, of the holy Arimathean, of St. Mary Magdalene, of the Blessed Virgin Mother, who, despite the unfathomable suffering unleashed upon the innocent Lamb of God, remained with him at the foot of the Cross and beheld with their own eyes his opened, immolated flesh. We must remember that odium fidei did not die with the end of 20th century totalitarianism; rather, it dances resurgently in the sands of Arabia and on the shores of Africa. The taunt of the terrorists in this video, “And we will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission, the promise of our Prophet, peace be upon him,” should arouse the heart of every pious Catholic.
As we enter the austere mortification of Lent, may we remember the bloody mortification of Christians across the world. Let us pray for the martyred churches of Africa and the Middle East, that the Holy Spirit will strengthen them in the faith and grant them the courage so often lacking in our fragile Western hearts. Let us pray that God will enlighten the leaders of the free world to adopt bolder measures against a genocidal army which desires nothing more than the extermination of Christians and Jews. Finally, let us beg the intercession of the martyrs, who have been washed clean in the Baptism of Blood, that their prayer might kindle in us the resolve to unabashedly preach the scandal of Christ crucified, whether in the light of blessed freedom or under the shadow of the sword– lest we bear the condemnation of the queen of the south, of King Solomon, and of Almighty God himself. As Christ prophesised above, we know that the people of Nineveh will already rise to denounce us, for we in the West stood idly in fear while the Islamists marched on Mosul and destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah.
The “sign of Jonah” is the sign of the Son of Man. It is the sign of martyrdom, and in the broken flesh of today’s martyrs, Christ is crucified anew. Behold, the Sign of the Prophet Jonah in our time!
Ecce signum Jonae aetate nostra