I think today’s Gospel reading has some intriguing images for us. Salt and light are basic things, but they certainly are things with which we can relate, things we experience on a daily basis. Salt and light are things that have an effect on everything around them. Add a little salt to some soup and you bring out the flavor. Turn on a light and you don’t fall down the stairs. So if we are salt and light, then we must have an effect on the world around us as well.
I like to cook, and so the reference to seasoning is one that gets my imagination going. You have to have some salt in food that you’re cooking or the meal will be bland and lifeless. We’ve all had under-seasoned food, and when we did we probably felt underwhelmed. We knew there was something missing. Now I can’t imagine salt losing its saltiness. In fact, I googled this and there was a science-type person taking this question on and he indicated that salt, in its crystalline form, is pretty stable; it doesn’t lose its flavor. So Jesus was using, as he often does, hyperbole to get our attention. Suppose for the moment that salt could lose its saltiness: what would it then be good for? Nothing, of course.
Jesus seems to be insinuating that we, as the salt for the world, could lose our saltiness. We could become under-seasoned by skipping Mass to attend a sports event or sleep in. We could become under-seasoned by neglecting our prayer life. We could become under-seasoned by watching the wrong things on TV or surfing the wrong sites on the internet. We could become under-seasoned by holding on to relationships that are sinful. And when that starts to happen, our ability to season our world with the presence of Christ is diminished bit by bit.
When I talk to second-graders about sin, in preparation for their first confession, I often use the image of light and darkness. Again, I do that because it’s an image they can grasp. I ask them how many of them are or at least were afraid of the dark. I think we all are or were to some extent afraid of the dark. Even now, when you hear a noise in the middle of the night, don’t you find it just a little more frightening because it’s dark? There is good reason to be afraid of the dark: you could fall or trip over something, some danger or person could be hiding waiting to leap out at you. I could go on, but I don’t want you calling me in the middle of the night if you can’t sleep!
And so, I ask my second-grade friends, what do you do to make the dark a less scary thing? And the answer is, of course, that you turn on a light. The light changes everything: you can see the obstacles over which you might have fallen. Anything lurking in the dark will now be identified in the light. Sometimes a quick look around with the lights on will assure you that that noise you heard was just the house settling, or the furnace firing up, or something similarly innocuous. The light just makes you feel a little safer.
And so we are called to be light too. We don’t need much time to think about how dark our world can be at times. We see on television the news about war and crime and terrorism and new diseases and things we shouldn’t be eating. We hear about children bullying one another and people stalking others on the internet. A quick moment of reflection reminds us of our own sinfulness; the bad that we have done and the good we have failed to do. Darkness in our world can be pretty pervasive at times, and it makes the world a rather frightening place.
But we have the light. We’ve been exposed to the light. We have come alive in Jesus, the Light of the world. We just finished celebrating Christmas and Epiphany in which Jesus came to our dark world to be made manifest, to walk among us and lead us on our pilgrim way to heaven. On Wednesday, if you were one of the five or so people brave enough to forge your way through the blizzard and join Father Raj for Mass at 7:00, you celebrated Candlemas – the Presentation of the Lord, the closing epiphany that propelled the infant Jesus into his ministry in the world. We have the light, shining in the very dark place that is our world.
As those gifted with the Light of the world, we become people of light. We become light for the world too. Jesus insists that our light should shine so brightly that we affect the darkness of our world, completely overcoming that darkness with the Light of Christ. He insists that we are now that city, set on a hill, that cannot be hidden. And we know how true that is.
We may know the truth of that in rather negative ways in these past years. Our Church has been the city set on a hill affected by scandal, first in the United States, then into Europe and other places. People saw what happened, it was set on a hill and could not be hidden. We have been ashamed and grieving in the years since.
And that’s what Satan wants for our Church. He wants to see us set on a hill and ashamed. He wants us to be seen by the watching world doing nothing, because we have lost our way. But that’s not what God wants. He still calls us to be the light for the world. People do see us, and have to see us doing good in big ways and small ways, so that other people will see the way to God and take delight in the ways we have seasoned the world.
I have a very small example. I was cooking the other day, and realized I’d forgotten just three things that I needed. So I went to Jewel at 4:30 on Friday afternoon. I quickly found what I was looking for and headed to check out. The lines, of course, were a little long at that time on Friday night. But the man ahead of me, noticing I had just three items, invited me to go in front of him. The man in front of him did the same, and soon I was at the head of the line. I thanked them, and as I headed out to the car, I wondered if I would have done the same thing. I’d like to think I would have, but I don’t know. What I did do was to say a prayer for them, which I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have thought to do had they not shown kindness to me. And heaven only knows the good that prayer may have done for them and those around them.
St. Therese of Liseaux used to talk about doing little things with great love for the glory of God. She found joy in her “Little Way” and it has inspired so many people ever since. Our Liturgy today calls us to do little things and big things, all for God’s glory. It calls us to be salt for a world grown bland with despair and light for a world dwelling in a very dark place. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us how to do it:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
If neglecting our prayer life and our integrity causes us to lose our saltiness, if giving in to shame and despair puts out our light, then we can never do what we were created for. But we have been given salt and light to season and light our world. We are the city set on the hill for all the watching world to see. Would that they might see us doing little things and big things, all for the glory of God.