I. Introduction: “It’s the Culture”
A. Years ago I met with a priest to discuss how things were going in his parish. Truth to tell, things were not going well. His parish was in rapid decline; Mass attendance was dropping; school enrollment was decreasing; and worst of all (!) the weekly collection was down. We began to focus on the causes for such precipitous decline. “It’s the culture,” my brother priest asserted, “I blame the culture for all this.” “But father,” I found myself retorting, “It’s the culture you should be evangelizing.”
B. I thought of that conversation as I reflected on today’s readings, readings that ask us to look at the culture of which we are a part, readings that challenge us to ask what our role is, as citizens and believers, in transforming that culture of which we are a part from within.
II. Our Culture Seen Through a Biblical Lens
A. So, let’s take a moment and try to see our culture through this biblical lens. What we find is that each of today’s Scripture readings took shape in a difficult culture, not unlike our own. When Isaiah prophesied, more than 700 years before the birth of Christ, Judah’s kings were corrupt, its leaders were weak, & Jerusalem itself was under siege. Isaiah’s word for the culture of his day was “gloom” and gloomy it was.
B. Things weren’t much better for the little Christian community at Corinth whom we looked in on in our second reading. Corinth was a prosperous, sophisticated, and licentious place. Its Christian community had no standing and was subject to persecution. Nor could things have been easy for the mixed Jewish / Gentile community at Antioch to whom St. Matthew the Evangelist likely addressed his Gospel. These Christians were minorities in prevailing cultures that were anything but friendly.
C. So we see own cultural situation reflected in Judah, Corinth, and Antioch. We often find ourselves faced with weak moral leadership and the Church herself appears to be under siege in a hostile atmosphere where the freedom of its ministries to serve faithfully is compromised. In today’s sophisticated & licentious culture, the Church’s teachings on human dignity- the sanctity of life, God’s design for marriage, and much more are widely rejected and its standing and influence in our society is waning. Catholics face stiff headwinds when they are serious about their faith. Pope Francis’ term for all this is “polite persecution”.
D. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us how we are to respond to this situation. He doesn’t tell us to be complacent and he doesn’t tell us to go along to get along. Nor still less does the Lord tell us to be swashbuckling cultural warriors who spend our time & energy reacting against the culture in which we’re immersed. Rather, the Lord tells us simply that we are to be salt & light to our contemporaries… “You are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth!” he says to us today. Salt & light: two images that help us understand how to analyze our culture critically, how to relate to it, and most importantly of all, how transform it from within.
III. Salt and Light in Scripture
A. Why, then, did Jesus choose “salt” and “light” as his metaphors? Well, it helps to remind ourselves that before refrigeration salt served to preserve perishable food from decay. Then, as now, salt was used also as seasoning for food. So with the image of salt, Jesus has a number of tasks in mind for his followers. The first is to preserve from decay all that is good within our culture – whatever serves the dignity of the human person and the common good; whatever promotes the family and other vital human communities; all that builds up an authentic sense of human solidarity. The image of salt speaks to our task of preserving the truth which reason attains as well as the beauty and goodness which artistry of all types aspires to . . . all of which are avenues for communicating the truth and goodness of the Gospel.
B. But salt cannot do everything, can it? You can put all the salt you want on something that’s rotten to the core and there’s no chance that salt make it fresh and good. The Lord expects us to sort out in our culture what is worth preserving and what needs to be excised – such as taking the life of innocent children, discarding the sick and elderly, redefining marriage, or casting a blind eye toward persecuted Christians. No preservative will make those bad things into good things.
C. And when the Lord speaks of salt as seasoning for food, what is he driving at? Isn’t he telling us that we who are his followers, we who are believers, should bring to the culture all around us the distinctiveness of the Gospel, that is to say, the truth and wisdom that flows from the living Word of God? Shouldn’t we be giving flavor to the blandness of a culture that offers no hope? Aren’t we called to bring the flavor of the Gospel to every venue of modern life – ethics over technology, persons over things, spirit over matter?
D. And it’s easy to see why Jesus used the image of light. In Scripture light refers to the glory of God and truth of revelation. Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world” and told his disciples that they too were to be “the light of the world.” Light also evokes the engagement of reason and a horizon of hope that overcomes the darkness of a culture of death so prevalent in our world. Above all, Scripture uses the word “light” to refer to the Holy Spirit through whom we receive into our hearts the light of Christ.
IV. How Are We Salt and Light
A. This gives us some idea of what the images of salt and light mean in Scripture but Jesus didn’t merely say that salt and light are good things we should have . . . he said that you and I must be salt and light in our world. So, what qualities of mind and heart make us salt and light?
B. Let me suggest that we are salt when we are people of virtue and integrity. We are salt when we manifest genuine Christian hope, when we strive for holiness, when we are people who dare to live differently. Aren’t we salt when we integrate our faith into daily life and when we know how to give an account of our hope to others? For St. Paul, and for us, being “salt” means boldly proclaiming Christ crucified not as a matter of human wisdom but rather as a “demonstration of Spirit & power.” If we lose the salt that is Jesus, if we are no longer identifiable as his disciples, then we become insipid and good for nothing.
C. And we are light by the luminosity of our charity. Isaiah said our light would break forth like the dawn and dispel the gloom to the extent that we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, & rescue the oppressed. When we place ourselves “in service to one, in service to all,” we allow the light of Christ to shine through us onto others. We practice “a charity that evangelizes” such that others may see our good deeds and give thanks to their heavenly Father.
V. Conclusion: The Catching Force, the Sympathetic Influence
Dear friends, let us give Bl. John Henry Newman the last word on what it means for us to be shine with the radiance of God’s love in this world by listening to a beautiful prayer he has bequeathed to us:
“Dear Lord, help me to spread your fragrance wherever I go. Flood me with your spirit and your life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may be only a radiance of yours.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only you, O Lord. Stay with me and then I will begin to shine as you do, as to be a light to others. The light, O Lord, will be all from you; none of it will be mine. It will be you shining on others through me.
Let me thus praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears for you. Amen.”