Preached to the 5pm Vigil Mass crowd at St. Paul’s in Cambridge. Gospel text was Mt 5:13-17.
Two Sundays ago we watched a video here at St. Paul’s announcing the CatholicsComeHome campaign. Despite this being a hopeful sign of the Church’s desire to evangelize, it also indirectly acknowledges a discouraging reality in our country: the second biggest denomination in the U.S. is lapsed Catholic. Just this week the Boston Globe ran a story on the “parish reorganization” underway across the Archdiocese, an admitted response to diminishment on many fronts: clergy, laity, resources. Reports like these tend be bring out fears: Perhaps the Church that we love really is a spent force. Perhaps she is doomed to be ground between the gears of a more potent cultural machinery, to pale next to the luster of slicker marketing and sexier spokesmodels.
In such times, the temptation is discouragement. But Christ will have none of that from his disciples. In calling us salt of the earth, he is offers us a challenge and consolation no less timely in our day than in Jesus’ own. To profit from Christ’s words, I thought we might reflect on three qualities of salt.
The first is simply that salt is salt. It has a unique identity. And if salt is to add any savor to the world, it must retain its own properties. This seems to be what Jesus is getting at when he delivers his oblique warning: But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. As salt of the earth, it seems that we are called to mix with the world, but never to be assimilated to it.
The natural reaction in the face of fear is to hedge our bets, to keep our distance from the Church for fear of finding ourselves below deck on a sinking ship; to lower our moral and spiritual standards to be more “accommodating” and more “relevant.” But this doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ way.
True, being ‘set apart’ can seem like a burden. I ran across an NPR interview the other day with the novelist Mary Karr. Her recently published memoirs were creating a stir because they recounted, among other things, her conversion to Catholicism from a background of agnosticism, addiction and divorce. Predictably, some critics found the “religious stuff” tedious. But Karr took it in stride. She quipped: “Talking about spiritual activity to a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio.” I like the image. It reminds me that faith is seeing more, not seeing less. But it also reminds me that we have to risk “bad reviews” if we’re to keep being salt. Jesus never led us to believe it would be otherwise.
Second, salt’s power is a hidden power. It seems that Christ proposes the image of salt precisely because of the disproportion between its appearance and its effect. On one level, to the sense of sight, salt hardly even registers. It dissolves almost instantly in routine kitchen use. Yet on another level, to the sense of taste, salt makes all the difference. Salt belongs to that family of images with which Jesus reminds us that the true measure of spiritual progress is often hidden from our eyes. The Kingdom of God is like the salt, not the meal; like the leaven, not the loaf; like the mustard seed, not the tree in which the birds make their nests. Salt is like Israel: on one level the least significant of the nations of the ancient world, but, on another level, a people whose light, the first reading tells us, breaks forth like the dawn.
I know a young woman who was a strong believer in the power of faith, especially in the power of its hidden acts—like prayer. Soon after accepting a job at Mass General, she also discovered that she was the only believer on her floor. And as she interacted with the different people in her rounds, patients and staff alike, something struck her: no one was praying for these people. No one was bringing their concerns and their needs before God. And so she began to fill her workday with such prayers; it became her personal mission. She could never trace the impact of these prayers, of course—no more than little Israel could foresee what her final impact on the world would be. But she did know that somehow, through her, God was salting the world, that he was preserving it unto everlasting life.
The third and final quality of salt is that it causes hunger and thirst. The Church used to draw attention to this feature of salt in the rite of baptism used before Vatican II. There, the priest would pinch salt in the mouth of the baby to be baptized. He would then pray, After this first taste of salt, let his [or her] hunger for heavenly nourishment not be prolonged but soon be satisfied … This “heavenly nourishment” was an allusion, of course, to the Eucharist, to the true food and true drink that Christ wants to give us all.
This should give us pause. Am I salt of the earth in this sense too? Does my life and witness make others hunger and thirst for the Eucharist? Jesus’ words today suggest that our lives will have this effect to the extent that they retain the distinctive flavor of the Gospel, to the degree that they are staked on the power of realities unseen. The more this is true of us, the more Catholics will desire to “come home.”