The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes
Homily for the
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
February 5, 2017
In his great work Natural History, the ancient Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote, “Nothing is more useful than salt or sunlight.” The ancient world, the very world in which Jesus found Himself, was heavily reliant upon these two basic phenomena. Salt was essential not only as a spice, but as a preservative. As a commodity it was extremely valuable – in fact many cities throughout Europe and Asia rose to great prominence and power because of their proximity to salt mines. Because of salt, food could be flavored, meats could be preserved, and certain wounds could be healed. Light, whether the natural light of the sun or the harvested light of fire, had a value that is perhaps even more obvious. Not only was light essential for sight, it also warmed and protected. The daily rising of the sun brought the hope and promise that dangers could be clearly seen, crops could grow, and the earth itself could be warmed out of its nightly chill, and the light from fire ensured that nightly enemies could be kept at bay, food could be cooked, and the cold of winter could be thwarted. It is easy to see why an ancient mind like Pliny would be captivated to write what he did. And though more than two-thousand years separates us from the time he wrote, I would venture to say that the same still holds true for us today. Salt and light are essentials to life and without them disease, destruction, and even death itself would soon take over.
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” These are the words that Jesus says to his disciples, to us, in today’s gospel. This is both a commentary and a command; a statement of fact and an exhortation. On the one hand He is reminding us that like salt and light, He Himself is essential and indispensable in our lives and in the lives of all people, and because we have become so radically one with Him in our baptism, the same is true for us. As Christians we are Christ-bearers; our lives and our witness bear the mark of the Savior and because of this we are indeed true salt for the earth and true light for the world. And on the other hand He exhorts and commands us to be true to our divine mission; to make sure that, as salt, we do not become corrupted or bland, thus losing our usefulness, and to ensure that, as light, we do not become dull and hidden, thus losing our purpose.
As salt for the earth, we are called to a two-fold task: to preserve and to flavor. As Catholic Christians we are inheritors of a great tradition, a tradition that transcends culture and time. What has been handed on to us is not only the message of Jesus Christ, but the very reality of the Paschal Mystery. As St. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “I have handed on to you as of first importance what I myself have received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.” Our Lord entrusted the transmission of this reality to His Church that faith in Him may be passed on from one generation to the next. In this way we are all preservers…as we receive the gift of faith in baptism it becomes preserved and embodied in us, and we are called in turn to hand it on, pure and undefiled. In modern times it has become popular for the more “enlightened” and “scholarly” among us to “re-interpret” the noble tradition of our faith. This manifests itself, as Pope Emeritus Benedict says, as the tyranny of relativism – where individual people decide for themselves what is true and what is not true. But Jesus warns us against this; he exhorts us as the salt of the earth to preserve, to protect, and to safeguard rather than to reinterpret, reimagine, or recreate. It is our task and our duty to ensure that the faith that has been handed on to us is preserved from corruption in the same way that salt ensures that meat is preserved from spoiling. And at the same time, as salt of the earth we are called to flavor. The interesting thing about salt is that when it’s used as a spice, it doesn’t add a new flavor to food…it’s rather more of an enabler…it enables the true flavors of the food to be tasted more vibrantly and fully. Salt helps what otherwise would be bland to come back to life. As true followers of Christ, we are called to humbly invite all of creation to come back to life, to invite all people to discover and to rediscover their full potential and lasting perfection in Christ. And this we do gently, but surely and certainly…flavoring and adding a new burst of life wherever there is discord, complacency, and infidelity.
As light for the world, we are entrusted with another two-fold task: to illuminate and to warm. As Catholic Christians the same faith with which we have been entrusted to preserve is itself a great light, a light that illumines the dark recesses of our lives. Our Holy Father Pope Francis, in his very first encyclical Lumen Fidei, the Light of Faith, speaks of this mystery in great detail, and calls us to meditate on the words of St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts.” A light greater than the sun burns in the hearts of those of us who believe, and it is precisely this light that can and will illuminate the world. The Prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning beautifully describes what this looks like; he says, “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, remove oppression, rid yourself of false accusation and malicious speech, and satisfy the afflicted.” In other words, the light of faith within us, the light of the only Son of God burning in our hearts, is not meant to be contained within us but to shine out, effecting real change and growth in a desperate world. As the sun itself casts away the darkness and uncertainty of the night, as it brings forth new life and vegetation from the soil, we are called as the light of the world to cast away with our words, our actions, and the very witness of our lives every shadow of sin allowing true faith in turn to grow and prosper. And since this light is nothing other than the burning fire of the Holy Spirit, as the light of the world we are called to warm the cold and the chill that arises from unbelief, setting the world ablaze and afire with the selfsame love that warms us. This is a reminder for all of us that the light of faith must always be transmitted by and with and in the fire of true charity and love.
After our Lord ascended into heaven, leaving us to remain about on earth, He sent us the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, that we might continue to be His enduring presence to all people. For this reason He graces us with the task and the privilege of being His salt for the earth and His light for the world. St. Teresa of Avila beautifully captures this mystery when she says, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. And nothing, nothing, is more useful than salt and light.