Jonah the Prophet, a Christological Figure
The Lutheran sanctoral calendar has chosen September 22nd as a day to commemorate the Prophet Jonah. This use of the term “commemoration” is not to be confused with the rubrical use according to which a commemoration is “[t]he recital of a part of the Office or Mass assigned to a certain feast or day when the whole cannot be said” (Catholic Online, s.v. “commemoration”), such as when in a given year it interferes with a Feast of higher rank. Rather, the online LCMS Worship Library refers to a commemoration as a kind of observance that is of lower significance than a saint’s day. It delineates saints’ days as being reserved for “some saints in particular whose lives on earth are so closely connected with the earthly life and ministry of Jesus that their stories are literally part of the Gospel itself,” while the lesser commemorations are used for “other saints from the Old Testament and throughout the history of the church on earth.” As used in our circles, then, commemorations have come to be understood as observances that are only kept during prayer offices, that is, “normally observed in daily prayer within the family, in the Christian day school, in the chapels of our colleges and seminaries, and in parishes where it is possible to gather for Matins or Vespers during the week” (LCMS Worship – Commemorations Questions and Answers).
I’ll add that traditionally the title “Saint” tends to be reserved for persons of note following the incarnation of our Lord, and not before. So, for instance, although it’s not unheard of, it seems better not to speak of St. Noah, St. David, St. Isaiah, etc. Nor, therefore, would we call today’s commemoration “St. Jonah the Prophet,” but simply “Jonah the Prophet.” There are many Old Testament figures whom we do well to honor, but they are nevertheless not “closely connected with the earthly life and ministry of Jesus.” This, I believe, is a helpful distinction, as it implicitly emphasizes the significance of the incarnation of our Lord. Moreover, these Old Testament figures tend as a rule to prefigure Christ, according to his own words, “Search the Scriptures, they testify of me” (St. John 5:39). Our consideration of Jonah will do well to search for such prefiguring and comparisons.
For starters, the Synod’s website provides this biography from Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), 747:
A singular prophet among the many in the Old Testament, Jonah the son of Amittai was born about an hour's walk from the town of Nazareth. The focus of his prophetic ministry was the call to preach at Nineveh, the capital of pagan Assyria (Jonah 1:1). His reluctance to respond and God's insistence that his call be heeded is the story of the book that bears Jonah's name. Although the swallowing and disgorging of Jonah by the great fish is the most remembered detail of his life, it is addressed in only three verses of the book (1:17; 2:1, 10). Throughout the book, the important theme is how God deals compassionately with sinners. Jonah's three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish is mentioned by Jesus as a sign of his own death, burial, and resurrection (Mt. 12:39–41).
But we can say more. Jonah the Prophet prefigured Christ in many ways. It is not only Jonah’s three-day ordeal that should be marked as a sign of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can easily go on to emphasize much more that was singular, or extraordinary, about the Christological character of this prophet. Like Jesus, he slept in a ship while the mariners fought against the weather (1;4-5); like Jesus, he offered himself as a sacrifice (1:12); like Jesus, he enabled the calming of the tempest (1:15), and this itself is a marvelous illustration of the meaning of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that calmed the divine wrath against the sin of the world. Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (2:1-9) is not merely reflected in the Psalter (cf. especially Psalms 18, 22, 42, 50, and 69), but finds fulfillment in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, which is derived from the Psalter (Psalm 22:1). Yet Jonah’s lament is also full of confidence (“Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple”, 1:4), even as Jesus’ confidence is noted in his repeated assurance to his disciples that he would rise from the dead. And, most notably, it was only after Jonah’s renewal that he went and preached to the Gentiles (an exceedingly rare thing for a prophet to do!), just as it only was after Jesus’ resurrection that he ordered that the Gospel should go out into all the world. Clearly, Jesus is “a greater than Jonah” (St. Matt. 12:41) in many more ways than one.
Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Jonah, You continued the prophetic pattern of teaching Your people the true faith and demonstrating through miracles Your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness. Grant that Your Church may see in Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in Your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. (Treasury, ibid.)