Reflection for Sunday – November 13, 2022
Readings: Malachi 3: 19-20a; 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19
Preacher: Susan K. Roll
Several years ago, a group of concerned German Catholics sent a communication to Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, at that time the Chair of the German Bishops’ Conference and the most prominent prelate in Germany. He was about to take part in a summit conference called by Pope Francis over sexual abuse in the Church. The message of these priests, religious and laypersons was, “The Sun of Justice is not coming out.”
“The Sun of Justice is no longer coming out. Under a leaden gray sky, the joy of faith is wasting away. … Therefore we call upon our bishops: Trust the sense of the faithful and regain credibility for the Church, without which the Gospel cannot breathe freely.”
The reference of course is to the sharply defined image in today’s First Reading from Malachi, that of the sun as both avenger against evildoers and healer of the wounded. The apparent cruelty of the threat shocks our sensibilities. We know of too many images of the innocent condemned to an agonizing death by burning alive: women condemned to be burned as witches from the 15th until the 18th century, Jewish men burned alive in their synagogues in 1930s Nazi Germany, and Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp crematoria during World War II, for example.
The sheer violence of this image of “all the proud and all evildoers” burned to death belies the source of the analogy, which is the practice of burning off stubble or chaff in fields of grain after the harvest, which makes a new crop possible—a controlled burn to clear the way for new life.
The turnaround in the next verse, the one-two punch if you will, promises healing to those who have suffered injustice, from the healing warmth of the sun. Luke’s account of Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple in the Gospel reading, was not merely a prediction of a future event (which in fact had already taken place when Luke was writing) but a vivid symbol of the utter destruction of all things in the end times. Apocalyptic imagery often goes hand in hand with the hopes of an oppressed people for liberation and a chance to rebuild a society from the ground up. It’s more about political and social conditions than about the cosmos. As commentator Richard Horsley remarks, apocalyptic texts “are not about the end of the world, but about the end of empires.”
A bit ironically, early Christians did not pick up on the image of the resurrected Christ as the sun that rises “with healing in its wings” until the Christian church had begun to accommodate itself to the culture, including the religious culture, of the Roman Empire. The last major persecution of Christians took place in the first decade of the fourth century under the emperor Diocletian.
The generation that remembered the terror of imperial persecution would sooner have died (and sometimes did) than use any religious customs or images associated with the Roman Empire, such as Apollo in his winged sun chariot. Yet by the mid fourth century, when Christians were no longer under threat, they began to justify the application of Roman religious practices by finding antecedents in Scripture. This verse from Malachi was one of them. It couples the resurrected Christ as the bringer of healing and salvation, with the destruction of all evil at the end of time when Christ comes again. The Roman Empire would collapse about a hundred years later.
The message sent to Cardinal Marx did not call down a rain of fire and agony upon the clerical perpetrators of sexual exploitation and violence on the vulnerable. It reads more as a plea to restore healing to a church reeling from revelation after revelation of abuse, a community dimly aware that all these ghastly statistics might be only the tip of the iceberg.
To say that Christians live in hope is not simply an easy throwaway line. Sometimes it’s hope against hope. Sometimes it’s the belief that a healing sun has been temporarily obscured behind a leaden gray sky. A voice from the Warsaw Ghetto said, “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. … I believe in God even when God is silent.”
And just maybe, the work that we do for justice, nudged along by the Spirit, can open up breaks in the clouds, and the sun will come out.