The sun is 93 million miles from the earth—just the right distance to promote life on our planet. Any closer would be too hot; any further would be too frigid.
This is a pretty good deal for us, because the sun happens to be absolutely essential to our earthly existence. It is, after all, the ultimate energy source for every living thing on earth. No sun would mean no plants, which would mean no animals, including us. It gives us light and warmth. Its power and beauty have fascinated mankind across time and culture.
But as intriguing as our human race has always found the sun, we have never been and will never be able to visit it. There is no substance known to man that could protect us from the intensity of its rays, if we tried like Icarus to get close to it.
I like to think of God as the ultimate Poet, the ultimate Artist. In that light, the sun is one of His most potent creations, not merely in actual size and power, but also in beauty and symbolism. There are so many ways He is like the sun in our lives.
And just like we could never survive a flight to the sun, neither could we survive coming in our natural state into the direct presence of God. This is reflected in the Old Testament belief that seeing the face of God meant death. Not that there's anything wrong with God; rather His holiness and power, His divinity, were too much for a puny creature to bear. It would be like coming face to face with the sun, that incredible ball of fire over 100 times bigger than the earth.
There is only one way something could come close to the sun and survive: only if that something itself was ablaze.
A number of saints have likened the love of God to fire. Perhaps because Jesus said He had come to set the world on fire and He wished it were already blazing.
This may explain the mystery of hell and Purgatory to us when they seem incompatible with a loving and merciful God.
This life is our time to be lit with the light of Christ. St. Paul tells us that it is in dying to ourselves and letting Christ live in us, it is in being members of His Body, that we gain eternal life (Rom 6:3-11; Gal 2:20; 2 Tim 2:11). It is by becoming the same substance as the Son, only in having His life within us, that we can live eternally.
The more we do that, the more prepared we are to meet Him. If we are of His substance, then as little flames we can dance in close proximity to the fiery Son.
The thing is, it is only in this life that we can make that transformation, that we can become fire ourselves. In the next life, we can only burn. If we are flames of the Divine Fire, we will burn perpetually, like the burning bush, without being consumed.
If not, if we refuse to undertake this transformation—which we can freely chose to do—then when we pass away from this earth and are then drawn irresistibly to God, the true center of our existence, we will merely get burned.
If we have only made a partial transformation—the case for most of us—then that in us which is not of God’s substance, what is not already aflame, will be burned away, though we ourselves, St. Paul assures us will be saved (1 Cor 3:15).
November is the month in Catholic tradition dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. Perhaps we can remember these souls who are undergoing this process, said to be more painful after death than during life. Let us pray for them and look for opportunities to make sacrifices for them, opportunities at the same time to die to ourselves and let the love of Christ burn in us, shedding light and warmth to those around us.