Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B – January 22, 2012
That All May Be One
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Tomorrow Chinese communities all over the world celebrate a New Year! The event was once based on a complex lunar calendar that served as a religious and social guide. Chinese believe a new year is a time to balance tensions, polar opposites — the yin yang — necessary for living in harmony with one another. This new year is the year of the Dragon. People born under this auspicious sign are considered to be very influential.
We don’t know if Jonah, the protagonist in our first reading, was born in the year of the Dragon. Maybe he was. Were Jesus and his disciples even aware of the zodiac signs in the Chinese calendar that had been in existence 1400 years before Jesus was born? Maybe they were. What the bible does tell us is that, like Jonah, Jesus and his followers went out of their way to influence people. How do we, as a church, influence people with what we believe, with our values systems?
God summoned a reluctant Jonah to go into the corrupt city of Nineveh. This story is not about Jonah being swallowed by a whale. This story was written to influence the Israelites who were trying to regain a sense of identity after being held captive for so long. They had to rethink their old traditions within very different historical and cultural contexts. 
Scattered all over the Middle East (the Diaspora) the Israelites found themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. They developed prejudices against people who did not practice their religion or share their values. This story is less about the Ninevites and more about those Israelites who were developing strong prejudices against foreigners.
John Shelby Spong in writing about Jonah’s message to the Ninevites points out that no one is beyond the reach of the all embracing love of God.  The irony in the story is that Jonah himself, like other Israelites, who were prejudiced against the Gentiles, was intolerant of strangers.
Acknowledging that we all are probably prejudiced in some way what is expected of us as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity winds down? It ends this coming Wednesday, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul who was influential in spreading Christianity. Fr. Paul Wattson, an Episcopalian priest who converted to Catholicism, started this week in 1908.  His vision of uniting all Christians is still influential.
This year’s theme is “we will be changed because of the victory of Christ.” It focuses on personal and communal transformations. It challenges our assumptions and prejudices. It alleviates our fears of other religions. Benedict, the bishop of Rome, said that this Week of Prayer is a time “when people of different traditions meet and work together for the victory, in Christ, over all that is sin, evil, injustice, and that violates human dignity.”  That’s what we are summoned to do as Christians.
Like our Jewish ancestors we Catholics today are struggling to refine our identity (so many have left us). We struggle to clarify our role in the Post-Modern world. Who are we in a world that is changing so much culturally and historically? We heard in the second reading that the present world is passing away. Particularly during this Week we think about our relations with people of other Christian religions and what we hold in common with them. [This is not to ignore non-Christians but to focus on Christians]
As we think about unity we cannot overlook what divides us. Apart from the advances made over the last one hundred years we also have to address those obstacles to full communion with other Christians: different interpretations of our core teachings, who may or may not lead us in administration and in worship, and even the choice of words in our liturgical texts.
Whether any one of us was born in the year of the Dragon all baptized people are called to be influential in working for Christian unity. It is not just about praying together or syncretizing our belief systems or giving them up. The world requires a vigorous and united effort to eliminate prejudices and injustices. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. Half of these are Catholic. Achieving unity and solidarity among all Christians is one challenge. Achieving unity and solidarity among all Catholics is another issue. We have to work on both tasks.
The beginning of a new year is always a good time to resolve to improve the way we work, study, worship and relate to others. Harmony in the world is the goal of the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Our goal is somewhat similar — not only respect for all Christians but for all human beings.
1 Ackerman, James in Attridge, Harold W. (Ed.) The Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV (San Francisco: Harper) 1989, p. 1234
2 Spong, John Shelby. Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World (NY: Harper One) 2011, p. 148
3 The Protestant Ecumenical Movement started in Edinburgh at the World Missionary Conference in 1910
4 Benedict XVI. Reflection on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Rome, January 18, 2012.