Monday, February 10, 2014

Salt and Light: the Beauty, the Goodness, the Sting.

 Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

Salt and Light.  These are two images that Our Lord uses to describe his disciples in the Gospel today.
At first blush these two realities might seem to be universally appealing.  Who doesn’t like salt and light?  Salt makes things tasty, and light – well do we really even need to say why light is good?

But wait…it’s not that simple, is it?  How do you like salt in a wound? Hmmm?  Not so much.  You ever mix up the salt with the sugar and put it in your coffee?  Not so great.

And light – beautiful light – that is, until you are driving down the road on a rainy night and trying to see where you are going.  Then it seems downright dangerous.  Or what about a neighbor’s really bright security light shining through the bedroom window when you are trying to sleep?  Fun.

A little salt brings out the taste, too much obscures it.  A little light helps us to see, too much light blinds.

Fr. Seamus, why are you trying to ruin this parable?  We like our nice warm and fuzzy light and our yummy salty popcorn.  Me too.

You may know, or may have heard, that today has been designated by the Church “World Marriage Day,” and this coming week “National Marriage Week.”

And today I don’t think any term illustrates what I am saying about salt and light better than this word: Marriage.  Is there any issue in recent years that has seemed more like salt in a wound?  That has seemed more like a security light beaming through the bedroom window?

“Why go there, Father?” you might ask.  Why not just stick with warm candles and popcorn?  Because I think we need to talk about this.  I don’t think we have really as a Church processed what happened around the whole marriage debate here in Maine.  Our Church has taken a very public stance and really caused a firestorm.  There are many Catholics who left the practice of the faith over the issue, and my sense is that there are many more who are still sitting in the pews but who feel more distant - whose identification with the Church has been weakened.

If you are not one of these men or women, certainly you know them, right?  And how many of you have been a part of the very difficult and tense conversations in recent months and years… around dinner tables, after Mass, at the workplace, and in so many other places?

Do we just pretend that none of this happened?  That the Church lost the marriage battle and so now its on to other things…  Let bygones be bygones?  I don’t think we can.  If we have any love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, if we have any love for the Church we can’t just move on.  We have to find a way to move forward.  We cannot let the impression stand – especially with younger generations – that salt and light are too harsh and intolerant for polite society.  That taking faith too seriously, living faith too publically, is a kind of social bullying.

Some might suggest that we just put the light under the basket for a time, let the salt mellow for a bit.  I think that is a natural response after such a contentious period.  Not to take such a public profile.  Let some of the memories fade with time.  Don’t say “Catholic” quite so loud.

But Christ clearly teaches against this move in the gospel today.  And I think we can see why on multiple levels.  First, to withdraw from society would not really address the issue.  Instead, it could seem like a ploy, like a kind of tactical retreat.  Instead of mending bridges or healing injuries, to withdraw from the discussion would only perpetuate an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

Furthermore, there is a great need for salt and light today.  People are hungering for it, craving to hear the good news of the Gospel.  They need to encounter Christ in us, tangibly and visibly.  We need to be Christ to them, for them.  And despite what some might like to pretend, you and I can’t do that if we don’t publically associate ourselves with Christ and his Church.

And finally, you can’t keep light healthy under a bushel basket – it needs oxygen.  And salt gets all clumped up and hard and useless if it is not used regularly.  Faith that is not alive, that is not active, atrophies and dies.  You cannot be salt, you cannot be light unless you are shared with the world.  Faith must be love in action.  By definition faith is relational, it is shared.

So we cannot retreat from society and become our own little walled city on the hill.  We cannot just do our own thing and let everyone else do their own thing.  Jesus did not do that, the apostles did not do that – and they had a lot more to lose.  They lost their lives because of it.  Christianity has never been a private religion, an individualized or customized faith.  We must live out our faith in the world, we must be salt and light for the world.

Yet let us be clear: Jesus did not ask his followers to go dump truckloads of salt on people or shine spotlights on them.  We cannot be blundering, haphazard or callous Catholics.  We will cause more harm than good.  That is why our faith, our Catholic tradition, has always underlined the necessary wedding of faith and reason.  Faith seeks understanding.  It is not irrational.  And so you and I cannot be true witnesses to our Catholic faith if we are not sure of the reasons for what we believe.  On this World Day of Marriage, I want to underline how important it is that all Catholics really strive to understand and know what the Church teaches about marriage, and to not be afraid to have conversations or read more if they have difficulties understanding the teaching.

But a correct understanding of Catholic teaching is not enough.  To be salt and light for our world, faith must be rooted in a life of virtue.  Genuine faith requires prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.  It requires fasting and abstinence, it requires long hours of prayer, it requires a community of believers, it requires sacramental grace.  To be salt, to be light for the world is not a thing that any of us can afford to be flippant about.  These are poignant realities - salt and light.  You don’t just trot them out on a whim.  Catholic faith requires deliberate, informed, and prayerful action.  Only then will we know how to be salt and light for the kingdom.

Pope Francis has communicated this well, hasn’t he?   Unlike what some media outlets have opined and some fearful Catholics have criticized, the Pope has not changed the teachings of the Church.  He has not put the light under a bushel basket, he has not lessened the flavor of the salt.  But he has shown a deliberateness and thoughtfulness in his words and actions that I think can guide us as we try to be salt and light to the world in which we find ourselves today.

Pope Francis has taken the path that is spelled out so beautifully in our first reading: “Thus says the Lord: 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, and your wound shall be quickly healed.”

Salt will always sting those who are wounded.  Light will always blind those who dwell in darkness. Some will turn away.  Some will refuse to be seasoned and will reject the light.  But please Lord may we not needlessly cause any to be lost through our superficial or lukewarm or haphazard witness to the Catholic faith.  Instead, by the grace of the sacraments and through our diligent efforts to grow in wisdom and virtue, may we be persistent in our witness - yes, to the sting - but also and especially to the beauty and goodness of salt and light.


  1. The Bible is the most published book ever written. I, as a Lector, in the Catholic church, find the words come to life as I read them. The Bible is the only Book ever written to record what God wanted revealed to mankind. The Bible tells me to not judge others and I won't, but I grieve that the people who claim to be Catholic go to Mass only for marriages, baptisms and on Holy days. Satan uses apathy to lure Jesus's followers away from the Church. The, "World's", ways lure people into apathy. You say the, "Church", is out of date. How do you know unless you read the Book? The road to Hell, is paved with apathy and ignorance.

  2. Wow! What a blessing it was to read this. We (Bill and I) may adopt your last paragraph as our daily prayer. Thank you, Fr. Seamus, for sharing your wisdom with us. We have been a part of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter Movement since 1989, and your words were refreshing, uplifting, and challenging all at the same time. Truth well put!