These last few weeks after the Epiphany have tended to focus on the new light that has entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Today, though, Jesus turns around in the Gospel and says something different: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Salt and light.
Let’s first think about light. Earlier this week, on the Feast of the Presentation, we heard Simeon declare that the infant Jesus was “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” This light, in other words, was never intended to glow alone. If, as Jesus tells his followers in Matthew, a lamp should not be kept under a bushel (5:14-16), surely that is the case for Jesus himself before all else. He reveals the light of the eternal Father; revelation, illumination, is his purpose, without which he would have never become incarnate in the first place. And if Jesus himself shares the light of the Father, we, in turn, are called to carry the light of Christ to the world. If Jesus himself should not be hidden, neither should we.
So far, so good, but what does salt have to do with light? What, furthermore, could it mean for salt to lose its saltiness?
From a chemical perspective, salt, sodium chloride, is what it is. For salt to lose its saltiness, it would have to become something other than salt, which it is not naturally going to do. Natural salt, though, is not usually found in purified forms like our modern table salt—it comes mixed with a variety of minerals, and so it may be possible for some naturally occurring salts to lose their saltiness—not because the salt becomes unsalty, but because the salt itself becomes too diluted with other substances to be of any use.
Light shouldn’t be hidden; salt shouldn’t be diluted. Why? Because hiding the light and diluting the salt mean avoiding the life of salvation, walking away from God’s love rather than toward it. But in Matthew, Jesus highlights a concern that goes beyond our individual salvation: he’s concerned with what light and salt do in the world. We know what light does: it illuminates; it reveals; it may even give warmth. What does salt do? Well, it provides flavor, for a start. It makes things taste better. And despite our longstanding low-sodium craze in this country, it’s also a necessary part of human health and nutrition. We can’t live without salt, which is why the history of salt is concomitant with the history of agriculture. Salt also acts as a natural preservative. In the days before refrigeration, it was the primary way to keep food from spoiling.
So what does Jesus mean when he implies that we are, or should be, salty? And by implication, how does he reveal this saltiness in himself?
Salt is useful and good not primarily on its own, but on or with other things. And so whatever we are on our own as Christians, part of our calling in this world is not just to be on our own, but to bring a kind of flavor enhancement and even preservation to the world and the culture around us.
This is more than simple affirmation, as if our role is to look out at the world with a big thumbs-up and say, “Carry on, everything’s fine here.” True saltiness has a prophetic aspect, which we see in today’s reading from Isaiah. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless.” In a similar way, St. Paul tells the Corinthians that his own speech has lacked lofty words and subtle wisdom, focusing instead on the stark message of Christ crucified. Surely these are examples of high spiritual sodium, of injecting the strong flavor of truth into the bland world of human complacency.
The world needs this flavor, just as the world needs its true light. The temptation toward an “invisible” Christianity is always present. At times that comes from a Protestant theology of an invisible Church and an invisible salvation. But I think more often from Catholics it’s less theology than it is social anxiety. This has often been an issue for Catholics in places where they’re the minority. We want to blend in, act as though we’re not different from anybody else. That seems to have become an art among Catholic politicians who claim that the Catholic faith inspires them to do whatever their party happens to want, regardless of whether it’s compatible with the Faith. And it’s easy to pick on public figures, but how often have you or I casually tossed aside some Catholic discipline the moment we realize someone else might notice? Dietrich Bonhoeffer would tell us bluntly, “To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him.”
At the same time, the salt analogy implies that our role, in the world, is not the kind of finger-pointing, Bible-thumping condemnation that is a real temptation for many Christians. If you put too much salt on something, you neither enhance it nor preserve it; you can end up destroying it. You can say the same about light. The light of the sun is good, but that goodness can harm us if we’re not prepared for it. Christ came, remember, not to destroy the world, but to save it. And the Church of Christ must always take care to wield the sword of truth in a way that guards and protects the good of the world rather than mowing it down for the sake of purity.
Christ’s saltiness, then, and our own, is a reminder that God’s plan of salvation is not one of coercion, but of love: what he seeks is not the imposition of a new law, but the retrieval of our truest selves, our truest natures, which find their meaning and their flavor only in him. As Jesus says in Matthew, he came not to destroy the Old Law, but to fulfill it.
The main way that we can lose our saltiness, or hide our light, is to lose sight of the source of our salt and light, which is Jesus Christ. The salt and light that he speaks of is not a generic goodwill to the world, but a goodwill that makes sense only in relation to him.
And the main threat against our saltiness is not in our ceasing to become salt altogether, but in allowing our saltiness to become diluted with other flavors to such an extent that it is impossible to recognize. This in effect makes our salt “invisible,” incapable of enlightening the world. It’s not that we abandon Jesus entirely; it’s just that our relationship with him becomes one more thing on our long list of priorities, somewhere amid the travel bucket list, losing a bit of weight, and taking up the harmonica. Put another way, we are incapable of becoming salt and light unless we allow the salt and light of Jesus to touch every layer of our existence.
May God prepare us for the salt and light of Christ, so that we may be saved from the bland and false world of sin.