Saturday, February 8, 2014

"You are the salt of the earth. . . ."

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel from Matthew (Chapter 5, v.13) : " You are the salt of the earth."  And then He says, " But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."  What in the world does He mean by that? I’m not at all sure, are you?  First of all, let’s talk about salt.  That most  essential and common condiment in almost all of our lives.

Salt is not just part of our vocabulary, it’s part of our menu.
Do you like the taste of salt?  Well, let me put it another way.  Do you like potato chips?  Then you like salt.  How about pretzels?  Or a slice of Italian salami?  Or a sliver of  Swiss cheese or Camembert?  Or how about some bacon with your eggs? Or a crunchy  Kosher dill pickle cured in a brine of spices and -- that’s right-- salt?  If you like any of these foods or most any food for that matter, then you like salt.

Imagine a completely salt-free diet.  Or better yet, ask someone who is on a low-sodium regimen and ask them how much they enjoy it.  They will tell you straight out:  it’s awful! Your food is so bland and uninteresting it’s almost not worth eating.  It doesn’t taste like anything! When we think of salt,  then, we don’t think of its own flavor, but rather the taste of things whose flavor it is meant to enhance.

Finally, in our own time, salt is, well, pretty much a free commodity, or almost.  When we go to a restaurant or a fast-food outlet, salt is right there alongside all the other things that we aren’t directly charged for, like napkins, straws, toothpicks, ice water, and, of course, pepper.  At McDonalds or In and Out Burgers, or  Paneras, or almost any fast-food outlet.

Salt, then,  is cheap, readily accessible, and, as I’ve mentioned, practically free.  And by the way, I’ve never seen anyone throw out a box of salt.  Look carefully.  There is no expiration date!  Salt has been around a long time, and it’s not going away any time soon.

But let’s listen again to Scripture:   Jesus says: " You are the salt of the earth."  And then He says, " But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."

Again, doesn’t that still strike you as a little bit odd? What is He saying to us?  Well, let’s consider some other information. 
Salt, in the time of Jesus, was used both as a flavoring, but even more importantly, as a food preservative.  In fact, it was the food preservative for many, many centuries.  In the absence of refrigeration,  the use of salt was crucial in preserving foods:  especially meat and fish.

Salt was expensive, too. It could only be obtained by evaporation or extraction:  either by the slow process of drying out in the sun in designated salt beds, or through the crude and perilous process of mining.  In fact, in the time of Jesus, salt was so rare and expensive that it was used as currency.  Worthy soldiers in the Roman army were given salt—or salario—as their compensation.  A word that, for us, has become the term salary.  Speaking of the Romans, they  even built several special roads, like the Via Salaria, to transport salt to urban centers.

The rock salt  they mined wasn’t wonderful, by the way; it had to be cleansed of impurities first. So that in cooking, salt was always placed in a cloth bag and suspended into a broth or soup, and retrieved once its work was done.  Then, the bag was thrown away.
Then, as now, salt was rare, expensive, and necessary. And its use was nearly universal.   Nomads lived by slaughtering and eating their herds.  The flesh of animals already contains an adequate level of salt for human consumption.  But everyone else—anyone who wasn’t a nomad, but who lived off the earth directly or indirectly—had to find salt another way most of the time. And they had to pay through the nose for it.

So let’s return to the Scriptures once more.  Jesus is not telling us to use salt. He is telling us to be salt.  The salt of the entire earth, as a matter of fact. Well, now he meaning is becoming somewhat more accessible. He is telling us that we are rare, precious, and necessary.
That we are meant to add flavor and zest to all of life as part of the realization of the Kingdom He proclaims and promises.

We are not the main dish.  That’s clear.  The Lord is.  But we are meant to  add ‘flavor’ to our world by our presence and commitment, not by trying to dominate it. 

He doesn’t say anything about how many of us there need to be, by the way.   Or how rich,  powerful, or imposing.  After all, it is estimated that the first Christian community in Rome initially numbered just about 200 people out of a population of 2 million!  And the vast majority of them were poor and struggling people.
Nevertheless, they were called in their time—just as we are in ours-- to add to the flavor of our world by being  the presence of Christ and of Christ’s witness to justice, peace, love and mercy in every situation in which we find ourselves.

We do this when we help to  heal, unite, and to bring home other human beings who are suffering.  And when we do so consistently over time,  it shows.  Both in us and  through us.  And in  the Kingdom we are called to proclaim with our lives.

Not only that—and this is an important caveat-- we need to renew and replenish our resources and reserves through prayer, meditation, sacraments (especially the Eucharist), and rest.

Jesus says:   “You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Presentation of the Lord

Earlier this week, I attended a celebration of Catholic Schools Week here in Santa Barbara at Bishop Diego Garcia High School. There were about 1,000 people present.  Most of them were the students from the four Catholic schools in the area:  Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Notre Dame, St. Raphael’s and Bishop High School. It was a wonderful day and a true celebration. 

At the Mass, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles told the children:  “I am going to speak to you about three things:  about Pope Francis; about how much God loves us; and about how much we need to love each other.”  Well, I’m not going to speak about Pope Francis, except to quote the Archbishop, who, noting that the Holy Father was on the cover not only of Time  magazine, but also of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the Pope’s popularity and concluded:   “ I guess that means we have a cool Pope.”

Well, we certainly know that about the Pope, so I’m going to talk about the other two things the Archbishop mentioned:  about how much God loves us.  And about how much we need to love each other.  It’s really the subliminal message of every single Gospel proclamation, isn’t it.  But today, we are asked to consider it through the words of today’s Gospel from Luke.

Today is a day that goes by a number of names and titles, depending upon history, tradition and geography.  We Christians in the Western world call it the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  But previously, we have called it the Feast of the Purification, or Candelmas, the day on which all the candles are blessed in church for the year.  Our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches call it the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord—a wonderful title.  And our brothers and sisters glued to their television sets this afternoon call it Superbowl Sunday.  No matter what we call or how we celebrate this day, though, we recognize that it is special.  A break in our daily routine.

In our very busy world, we not only accept, but we expect and even anticipate such interruptions.  Practically no commute is complete without a crash or a breakdown.  It is not uncommon for our tv programs to be interrupted by ‘special announcements’ or subtitled updates of everything from riots to elections to stock market announcements.  And the banners on our Google or Yahoo! Homepages make pseudo-announcements about celebrity shenanigans and shopping tips on an hourly basis.  It happens so often that it’s difficult to separate what is important from what is hype; from what is really just  momentary and trivial.

What is happening in SS today is really important, not momentary and trivial. The normal rhythm of Ordinary Sundays, one falling rhythmically after the other, has been interrupted for a special announcement.  Instead of following the sequence of the public ministry of Jesus, we are suddenly jolted into another awareness and reality. We interrupt this Gospel for a special announcement.  Today is the Feast of the Purification of the Lord. It is 40 days after Christmas. Can you believe it? The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness to be tempted by the Evil One. In little more than a month, we will be entering into the 40 days of Lenten preparation for Lent.

So what is happening here?  Jesus, 40 days after His birth,  is being presented to the Lord.  In compliance with Law and tradition.  And in fulfillment of the Scriptures  In the prophets Simeon and Anna, the Old Dispensation meets the New.  And Jesus, for the first time in the city of Jerusalem and in the Temple precincts, is recognized as Messiah by people officially recognized as representatives and servants of the Lord and His People.

Simeon literally lifts up the infant Jesus to the Lord.  Jesus, Himself the Redeemer, is symbolically “redeemed”—bought back—in a ritual which acknowledges that all of Life is from God and belongs to God.  (See Exodus 13:2). In a ceremony prescribed by Scripture and tradition, this firstborn male child is “presented’ to the Lord in recognition of the reality that He belongs to God in the first place.  And then, He is “redeemed” or “purchased”—bought back by his parents with the ritual offering of turtledoves/ pigeons.

Simeon lifts up the Lord. And then announces that his work is done and he is ready to die.  In like manner, Anna, the 84 yo prophetess appears on the scene to corroborate the testimony of Simeon. Her work and vocation have been fulfilled as well.

But what about  us?  Every story about Jesus is addressed to, involves, and implicates us as well . We never  remember or commemorate an event in the life of Jesus just for its own sake. We always celebrate as well.  And a celebration is always right here and right now.  The Presentation is present.  Simeon lifts Jesus up to the Lord and leaves the scene.  Now, Jesus lifts us  up to the Lord but will never leave the scene.  In this story, Luke reminds us.   That we, too,  have come into this world not by accident by through the Love and  loving design of God. That we belong to God first most and always. That Jesus lifts us up to the Lord and “redeems” us by the sacrificial offering of His Life and His Love.

When we gather around the table of the Lord as a Eucharistic community. The priest says:  Lift up your hearts. And we answer:  We have lifted them up to the Lord. By saying this we simultaneously acknowledge that it is Jesus who lifts up not only our hearts but our entire being to the Lord.

He lifts us up out of soul-wearying repetition and deadening routine.  He lifts us up out of frustration and despair.  He lifts us up out of boredom and fatigue.  Lifts us up from our pain, suffering, and grief.  Our confusion, doubt, and fear. And He presents us- in His embrace and in His love—to our Creator—a loving and gracious God!

In all of this, we are called to recognize that the Lord lifts up all of His people, not just ourselves alone. So, we need to respect and reverence them every bit as much as we do ourselves.

We interrupt this regularly scheduled program to announce, to remember and to celebrate what we  must never forget:  That God is always present to us.  That God really does love us.  And that we must love and reverence each other as well. And strive to be truly “present” to God, to ourselves, and to each other as well.