As we move toward the end of the Liturgical Year, the Sunday readings continue to sound themes of the end, general judgment, and ultimate salvation. Paradoxically, just when Scripture means to communicate a message of clarity and comfort, we encounter imagery that confuses and alienates many of its readers and auditors. Take, for example, the fire image we meet in the selection from Malachi. We take seriously Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies, and so picturing God burning up evildoers can pose a problem. At such a moment, we do well to recall Aquinas's reminder that all language about God is a finite attempt to describe the infinite; an image applied to God needs to be both affirmed one way and, in some other ways, denied. St. Thomas made that caveat not in order to discourage God-talk but to approach such language with care and discernment, minding both what it says and what it does not say. The sun metaphor in today's reading from Malachi is well worth our careful scrutiny.
First, think for a moment about what the sun is for us. In our own, post-Hubble, view of the universe, we know that our sun is one moderatesized, middle-aged star among many billions of others like it in the cosmos. Even so, we also know, far better than our biblical ancestors, that the sun is absolutely essential to our existence as life forms on planet Earth. All we have to do is consider the lifelessness of our neighbor planets. Mercury and Mars, to realize that we have a privileged relationship with our flaming star. We circle the sun at just the right distance from its heat to receive its light and heat in just the right quantity to be nurtured rather than singed. All life on Earth derives from the energy of the sun. Without the sun, we earthlings simply would not exist. Once we are in touch with this reality, it is easy to understand why many of the world's religions have worshiped the sun as a god.
That realization helps us appreciate why the authors of the Hebrew Bible found the sun an apt symbol of its transcendent Creator. Like the sun, God sustains our life, physical and spiritual. Again, better than our ancestors, we know that our sun is the source of the very substance of our planet, which was composed of a solar spin-off four and a half billion years ago. So the sun can symbolize God both as originator and as sustainer.
Further, even a child learns early that we have to exercise our human freedom reasonably to relate happily to the sun's fire. If we do not relate appropriately to the peculiar nature of the sun’s energy, we can become dehydrated, burned, blind, even cancerous. The same power that nurtures, warms, illuminates, and brings out color can also scorch, sicken, and kill. The difference between our positive and our negative experience of the sun lies not in solar whimsy but in human choices. These aspects of the sun-image of God give us a way of realizing how the same reality can be at once “healing” and “punishing.”
Paul was making the same point when, in the first chapter of Romans, he spoke of how the apocalyptic “wrath” of God is revealed in God's simply allowing persons to suffer the natural consequences of their disordered actions. God does not burn them; they “get burned” in their violation of the order of creation.But if the sun image works to reflect a few aspects of the divinity, it fails in some other ways. The solar image is impersonal and deistic. It could mislead us into thinking of God as unresponsive to human need. That is why the Gospel reading—with all its talk of destruction, insurrections, and persecution—is so encouraging. Jesus mentions these components of the apocalyptic scenario only to insist that these disasters will never finally come between the Lord and his people. “Some of you will be put to death. All will hate you because of me, yet not a hair of your head will be harmed. By patient endurance you will save your lives.” How can persons get put to death and still have not a hair on their head be harmed? Only if a caring God sustains them on both sides of death. If the love of God is as powerful, healing, threatening, and awesome as the fire of the sun, it is as protective as the care of a nursing mother. When it comes to talk about God, we need all the images the Bible has to offer.