The sun is the star at the center of our solar system. It is a mass of exceptionally hot plasma and magnetic fields. Chemically it is mostly made of hydrogen and helium. By mass, it is many times larger than all of the other planets in the solar system combined – giving it the gravitational pull that drives the other planets – including our own – through their respective motions, seasons, and other periodicities. It provides the energy that makes life, as we know it, possible on Earth.
We are dependent on this universal oven for our lives. Without it there would be no photosynthesis – no growth or energy, that is – in plants for us to benefit from. The surface of our planet would no longer be a beautiful blue and white sphere (as in the Apollo 8 image that so inspired us when we first saw it in 1968). It would be a cold grey mass spinning lifeless in space.
For some reason we normally take this remarkable star for granted. It is so constant that even our complete dependency upon it gets ignored, just like the essential water that falls from the sky and the oxygen that we pull into our lungs. It shines on all of us – rich and poor alike.
And if many of us forget what a blessing it is, there is something even more significant that I would like to point out – something that even fewer of us ever consider: our sun works like a cosmic battery. It is not our ultimate source of energy. Something else entirely energizes it. This is not an astronomical truth that you will learn about in a physics class. It is a scriptural truth of such proportion that it fills us with wonder: the source of the sun’s brilliance is the Son of God.
“This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.” (D&C 88:7).
Consider the significance of this. It means that the influence of Jesus the Christ extends to the very core of our physical existence. Yes, we understand that He is the source of all spiritual sustenance. And yes, we understand that He is the Creator of the world. Of course, we also realize that He is the High Priest of good things to come (Hebrews 9:11) - with all of the salvific implications of that magnificent title. But somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten that He is also the source of our everyday (hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute) needs. Without the sun – that is, without the Son – we would not exist in this world.
I am not suggesting that we dig up the pagan rites of sun worshippers. They crop up without too much trouble on all continents and through a long history of religious commitments. Christianity itself has its own brief conjunction with sun worship that seems to have been almost inevitable in the melting pot of the Roman Empire where the deity Sol Invictus was worshipped as the official Sun God.
His day of birth – the so-called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – was December 25th which was later adopted by the early Fathers as the official day to celebrate Jesus’ own birth. We sometimes smile knowingly that the real birthday of Jesus was actually in the spring – when shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night.
But was the Christian adoption of the sun god’s birthday a mere political expedient? Was a convenient calendar the only reason for changing the date? We will probably never know. We do, however, have a couple of clues that suggest that there may just have been a solar association with the Son of God even back in those forgotten centuries. One of the clues involves the Book of Malachi (written probably a couple of centuries before Christ and recorded as the last book of the Old Testament) and the book of Third Nephi (written at the time of Christ and recorded in the Book of Mormon) which contains a section repeating the verse in Malachi.
Referring to the end of times when the earth will be burned as an oven, Malachi records, “but unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings...” (Chapter 4:2).
This is an interesting perspective on the word sun: being capitalized, referring to a male deity (most likely) and representing a moral being representative of a Hebrew seraph (with wings). The early Christians, however, were clear that this being was Christ, the Sun of justice.
Ambrose wrote in Six Days of Creation (4.2.5): “therefore God the Father says, “let the sun be made,” and the Son made the sun, for it was fitting that the Sun of justice should make the sun of the world…”.
Valentinus was also clear on this (Letter 216, Valentine to Augustine): “…the Lord shall come as a burning furnace and shall burn the wicked like stubble. And to those who fear the name of the Lord, the Sun of justice shall rise, when the wicked shall be punished with the judgment of Justice.”
The Book of Mormon makes the relationship even clearer: “But unto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings…” (3 Nephi 25:2). Here the healer is the Son, not the Sun. And Malachi’s play on words becomes apparent. There is a glory in the Son of God that resembles our life-sustaining star. But if the orb can burn, the Son of God will heal. One wonders what other similarities there might be. What other hints are to be found in the sacred record?
One important hint was given to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in their vision of the degrees of glory. “These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical” (D&C 76:70).
That last word typical is a wonderfully ambiguous word. It can mean a handful of different things. If this were the only verse we had associating the sun with deity, we might draw one of several conclusions.
We might assume that the sun is an example of deity – that it is characteristic of a god. It wouldn’t be clear that the sun wasn’t a god itself. This understanding of the word typical isn’t all that different from the understanding we sense from some sun-worshipping cultures. In fact this understanding of typical is the definition we are most familiar with today. As in, “I am eating a typical apple for lunch.”
Then there is the definition of typical as a type, or as the defining example of something. In the science of taxonomy, for example, a type specimen is the actual individual (preserved and usually mounted in a museum) that defines a species. In order to assure accuracy in identifying an individual of the same species, a careful comparison must be made with the type specimen. This is the individual that the original author (describer) of the species designated as the name-bearing entity of his discovery.
If this were the intended meaning of the word typical, it would indicate that the sun was not just an example of a deity, but that it was the Supreme Being in existence. Again, this is the understanding of some sun-worshipping cultures.
The other meaning of typical is that it is emblematic of, or that it is of the nature of, something else. Maybe it is a symbol of something else, or perhaps a subset of a larger entity. An apple in a painting, done in still-life, might be a typical apple. An expensive truck might have the power typical of several teams of horses.
The sun, in this sense, might represent a being that is, itself, even more powerful than it is. Similarly, it might have characteristics that are similar to the Supreme Being. It seems that this is what Malachi meant when he drew upon the image of the Sun to describe the Son.
And it opens up to us is an immense amount of understanding about the Son of God, by way of comparison. We know that the sun’s power is beyond our ability to comprehend. We know that it will burn to a crisp all of life unless we are protected. (And this is why the early Fathers recognized the sun as a symbol of Christ’s justice.) We also know that it is the life that sustains us day by day.
Such understanding makes us stop in awe-full wonder. How transcendent is the Son of God? Certainly his power is beyond comprehending. Truly we are nothing without His grace. And without this same grace we will wither as the summer grass before the blazing sun.
Before such majesty our human pride is truly tragicomic. Our greatest achievements appear in the archives of eternity as so many ant-hills in the Garden of Eden. How pathetic is our fallen presumption before the Son/Sun of God!
My quotations from Ambrose and Valentinus are taken from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament XIV, The Twelve Prophets; edited by A. Ferreiro and T.C. Oden. Inter Varsity Press, 2003.