The Coptic Church today celebrates what is often called “Jonah’s Feast,” after concluding a 3-day fast known as “Jonah’s” fast, which is an observance exclusive to the Oriental Orthodox. But I got to thinking: how did it originate and what is its purpose? I was surprised to learn a number of things I hadn’t really known before, and thought to share with you:
1) “Jonah’s Fast” may be a misnomer. It was actually originally called the Fast of Nineveh. According to an ancient Arabic manuscript preserved in the Vatican Library, a few hundred years after the fast was instituted, a man named Gregory Bar-Hebraeus called it “The fast of Nineveh” and never once referred to it as Jonah’s Fast.
2) It is debated whether the Ninevites fasted 3 days, or 40. We presume the number of days based on the amount of time Jonah says God is giving them to turn from their ways. According to the Hebrew text, Jonah 3:4 says 40. But according to the Septuagint, the biblical translation of the Old Testament known to and used by the apostles and early Christians, the number is 3. Three days makes more sense because no food or water for an entire city for all living beings in it including animals seems much more doable than 40 days.
3) This is a “relatively” new fast in the Coptic Church, only about 1,000 years old, adopted from the Syriac Church by the same Coptic Pope associated with the miracle of the Mokattam Mountain. The fast was originally promulgated by the Maphrian of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the year 536 AD, in resposne to a plague that was occurring at that time. The Coptic Patriarch, Abraham, who was Syrian, and who was the same pope associated with the miraculous moving of the Mokattam mountain, instituted the fast in the 10th century.
4) We don’t know what creature swallowed Jonah. The Greek word referring to this event in the Septuagint and by Christ in Matthew 12:40 refers to a “large sea creature.”
5) In Arabic “Jonah’s Feast” is also referred to as Jonah’s Passover. Christ said that just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and came out alive, so too would Christ Himself be in the tomb for three days and then rise from the dead. This symbolic connection between Jonah and Jesus was brought forward by Christ Himself: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Death did not hold Christ, and likewise Jonah was not held by the figurative death in the great fish. Maybe it is called Jonah’s Passover because, for Jonah, death passed over him rather than succumbing to it.
SPIRITUAL WORD FROM ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
The purpose for me of this fast is to get ready for the Great Fast that is just around the corner. I’ll close with this homily by St. John Chrysostom, showing God’s mercy in declaring the consequence of sin, in order for us to avoid the consequence, not so that He may exact it up on us:
The threat of hell show the care of God for us no less than the promises of heaven. For the threat cooperates with the promise, and drives men into the kingdom by means of terror. Let us not think it a matter of cruelty, but of pity and mercy; of God’s concern and love for us. If in the days of Jonah the destruction of Nineveh had not been threatened, that destruction would have not been averted. Nineveh would not have stood but for the threat, “Nineveh shall be overthrown” [Jonah 3:4]. And if hell had not been threatened, we should all have fallen into hell. If the fire had not been denounced, no one would have escaped the fire. God declares that He will do that which He desires not to do, that He may do that which He desires to do. He wills not the death of a sinner, and therefore He threatens the sinner with death, that He may not have to inflict death. And not only has He spoken the word, but He has exhibited the thing itself, that we may escape it. [Homily 15 on First Timothy]
SOURCES / FURTHER RESOURCES:
The A to Z of the Coptic Church, By Gawdat Gabra, p.107-108