The Sun of Righteousness

By Jonathan A. Mitchican

Our Lady of Walsingham is a traditional place, evoking even in the architecture of this building a sense of being ancient and timeless, but it’s impossible to keep the modern world out entirely. Case in point, while we have some lovely candles on the altar this evening, the main source of light in this room is artificial. And for us as modern people, that’s true most of the time. Most of our light comes from electricity and glass bulbs. That’s a simple and obvious observation, but it has a surprisingly dramatic effect on how we understand the passage we hear from the prophet Malachi this evening.

We don’t really know who Malachi was — his name in Hebrew just means “a messenger.” But we do know that the four short chapters that make up his book were written sometime in the sixth century B.C., at one of many low ebbs in the life of the people of Israel. The people had been through many challenges over the centuries since Moses had led them out of Egypt. They’d survived being conquered, enslaved, and sent into exile. But for the better part of a century, things had been stable.

And what Malachi says is that this seeming “stability” was killing them, because it showed that the greatest enemy of the people of Israel wasn’t some conquering force from the outside; it was their sinful hearts. Malachi rails against the growing disregard for God among the people, the laziness and corruption of the priests, and the great scandal of men divorcing their wives and abandoning their families.

Malachi’s talking about ancient Israel almost 2,500 years ago, but he could just as easily be talking about us today, since we suffer from all the same problems in our society and in the Church. The cause of these problems, according to Malachi, is a deep arrogance among the people that makes them unwilling to repent, unwilling to trust in God for what they need. It’s easy to cry out to God when there’s an enemy just outside the door. It’s a lot harder when the enemy is inside of us, infecting us with pride and stubbornness and fanning the flames of our disordered desires.

Malachi excoriates the people for their wickedness, all the way up through the first verse of chapter four, when he says that the day is coming, “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be [reduced to] stubble.” If that’s a verse that doesn’t make you quake in your boots, I fear for you, because all of us who are sinners are implicated by it.

But then, Malachi follows this with a beautiful, poetic piece of good news. He tells us that the Lord says, “For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Now remember, in the ancient world — and for most of human history — there was no such thing as artificial light that flicked on and off at the flip of a switch. There was only one source of light, and it was fire, whether we’re talking about the fire consuming the wick of a candle that helps us to see in the night, or the fire of the sun in the sky that illuminates the day.

Fire is both powerful and dangerous. The light from a candle can be beautiful, romantic even, but if we place our hands in the flame it burns us. The same is true of the sun, which makes it possible not only for us to see but to grow things, to conduct business, even to get certain nutrients that our bodies need like vitamin D.

Yet if we’re out in that sun for too long, unprotected, it can not only burn us but make us sick. This is why ancient people revered fire, because they understood its power. The same fire that gives us light and warmth can also harm us if we don’t approach it properly. The flame that burns away our impurities can also burn away the rest of us if we don’t respect it.

“The sun of righteousness” that Malachi tells us will “rise” is Jesus. Malachi couldn’t have predicted, of course, the play on words in English between the sun that gives light in the sky and son — the male child, the heir. Yet Jesus is both. He is the only begotten Son of God the Father. And he’s also the “sun of righteousness,” the source of God’s life-giving light that comes to us as a cleansing fire with “healing in its wings.”

The “wings” are a metaphor for the sun’s rays that shine on us, and perhaps a sign of the resurrection as well, that in Jesus, God the Son will rise like the sun and shine on us to heal us. That’s what he’s come to do. That’s his intention toward us — healing, restoration, renewal.

We don’t always believe it. As sinners, part of the cycle we often go through is to reach a place of self-loathing wherein we think that we must have exhausted the Lord’s patience with us. We’ve made the same mistake repeatedly, committed the same sin multiple times, and perhaps we’ve gone to confession and been absolved, but we just feel stuck in a rut, like it never seems to change.

Or maybe it’s just one sin in our past, but it’s a bad one that we’ve never been able to get out from under or to stop feeling guilt over, and we think that surely when God says he’s absolved us of that sin that he doesn’t really mean it, not all the way. Maybe he forgives us the way we tend to forgive others — “I forgive you, but I’m not taking my eye off of you from now on.” But the picture Malachi paints is different. The God who comes to us in Jesus is concerned only with our healing. His love for us is genuine and unyielding.

There’s nothing you have ever done that will prevent God from loving you, forgiving you, and healing you. By the power of his cross, he has already put your sins to rest. He will always love you and he will always seek you out to rescue you and claim you as his own.

The only thing that can prevent that from happening, according to Malachi, is the arrogance of presuming that your sin is so special that it’s beyond God’s power. News flash, friends: Your sin isn’t all that special. God made the universe and conquered death; he can deal with your sin. What he can’t and won’t do is force you to trust him. St. Anthony the Great said, “Saying God turns away from the sinful is like saying the sun turns away from the blind.” Don’t close your eyes and find yourself engulfed in flames. Open your eyes, and see the light.

The Rev. Jonathan Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.

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