Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Sun of Justice

"But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays" (Mal. 4:2)

This passage from the book of the prophet Malachi was read at Mass in the Novus Ordo today, thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Malachi is the last prophetic book of the Old Testament; written after the Exile between 515-445 B.C. As such, it represents God's last canonically prophetic words to the people of Israel (of course other canonical books were composed after Malachi, but Malachi was the last strictly prophetic book).

As the last prophetic book, Malachi is brimming with references to the coming Messiah who will restore all things and usher in the Kingdom of God. The coming of St. John the Baptist in the spirit and power of Elijah is prophesied (3:1; 4:5-6); Christ's cleansing of the Temple (3:1); the institution of a new priesthood that will offer a pure sacrifice (1:11; 3:3), the universality-catholicity of God's new covenant (1:5; 1:11), the destruction of the Levitical priesthood (2:1-3). It is a book that perfectly sets the stage for the New Covenant.

In Malachi 4:2, we see the Messiah referred to as the "Sun of Justice", sometimes called the "Sun of Righteousness"; the Latin Vulgate translates this title as Sol Iustitiae, "Sun of Justice." This is an appropriate allegorical name for the Messiah. The period of waiting for the Messiah was a period of long darkness; but though the night is long, eventually the sun peaks above the horizon, casting its light slowly at first, but eventually illumining the entire earth under its brilliance. 

Thus the name "Sun of Justice" denotes a period of expectation through the darkness. Psalm 130:6 says, "My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen [wait] for the morning, more than the watchers for the morning." The prophet Isaiah also says: "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising" (Is. 60:1-3). This is also why in the Easter Vigil liturgy, the church is shrouded in darkness for the Old Testament readings until the eruption of the "Sun of Justice" into the fallen world, allegorically signified by the Easter candle.

This should call to mind Resurrection; just as the sun symbolically "dies" at the end of the day and "rises" in the morning, so the Messiah will be put to death, descend into the earth, and then rise again in glory. Again, this is potently set forth in the rites of the Easter liturgy, where light and Resurrection are synonymous.

"Sun of Justice" also implies glory. Obviously, the sun is the most glorious body in the heavens. It "rules the day" (cf. Gen 1:16) just as Christ rules the cosmos. This glorious light denotes the power and salvation of the Messiah to the entire world. As it is written in Isaiah, "It is a small thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to convert the dregs of Israel. Behold, I have given thee to be the light of the nations [Lat. lumen gentium], that thou mayst be my salvation even to the farthest part of the earth" (Is. 49:6). The coming of the Messiah and His universal kingship are associated with the glory of God filling the earth, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Hab. 2:14). 

Wherever this glory spreads also goes the justice and universal dominion of God. This is the meaning of one of the most famous passages in Isaiah - and one which no one familiar with Handel's Messiah can ever read without humming:

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Is. 40:4-5)
The "glory" shall be seen by all flesh, like the rising sun that breaks upon the earth. And it will establish justice. This is the meaning of the Hebrew idiom "every valley shall be raised up; every mountain and hill made low"; in other words, there will be a great leveling. God will dispense justice that will throw down the mighty and elevate the lowly. This is all implied in the title "Sun of Justice."

We can see how it is a very fitting title for the Messiah. It also has an important liturgical connection. We know that for most of the Church's history, the Mass was always offered facing east, a position called ad orientem. This usually meant geographically east, but there is also a "liturgical east" which means the priest and the people facing the same direction as the Mass is offered, the position ad dominum, "facing the Lord" (as opposed to versus populum, "facing the people"). 

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the liturgical, historical, and theological reasons for worship facing east; but we can note that, symbolically, it is very fitting. The Messiah is likened to the sun, which rises in the east. This ties in to a very ancient Christian tradition that when Christ returns, He will return from the east. And this is not based solely on an allegorical connection between Jesus and the sun; Christ Himself says in the Gospel of Matthew, "For as lightning comes out of the east, and appears even into the west: so shall the coming of the Son of man be" (Matt. 24:27).

Now, Christ certainly may not be teaching that He will literally appear in the east first; but symbolically, it makes sense to associate His coming with the east. The sun, our Lord's symbol, rises in the east. Jesus says His coming will be like lightning that comes from the east. In classical antiquity, the east signified brightness and daylight while the west signified darkness. In English etymology, the word east means towards dawn; daybreak, while the word west means "evening, night." The same connotation exists in Greek and Latin.

Thus, it makes sense that the liturgy should be oriented towards the east, for from here - symbolically at least - the faithful may expect the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the ad orientem posture demonstrates the Church's faith in Christ's return, professed in the Creed when we say, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

May the Sun of Justice rise upon us. As we prepare to enter Advent, may we recall the words of the traditional hymn, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.


Anonymous said...

Our priest follows pre-1951 rubrics for holy week and our easter vigil is early Saturday morning.
2nd book of St.Peter suggests nuclear war taking place.
"The entire world will be enveloped by Fire."(or something similar)
Do you know if this passage is referring to something other than Nukes?

Boniface said...

I don't know. The Tradition never interpreted it that way, obviously since nukes did not exist. I always assumed it was some sort of destruction by fire akin to what destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but I certainly wouldn't rule out nukes.

Speaking of nukes, check out Zechariah 14:

Zechariah 14:12-13: This shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh shall rot while they are still on their feet; their eyes shall rot in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot in their mouths. On that day a great panic from the Lord shall fall on them, so that each will seize the hand of a neighbor, and the hand of the one will be raised against the hand of the other.

Anonymous said...