I believe that one of the real challenges Christianity faces today is a widespread memory problem. For example, do you remember from what book this Sunday’s Second Reading was taken? Most people probably don’t, and while that’s a shame (and raises questions about how closely we are paying attention to the Word of God during liturgy), that’s not exactly what I’m referring to here.
The memory problem I’m thinking about has to do with how we are very quick to apply our own ideas and judgments of various Christian figures throughout history to them before we pause to recall — to listen — to what they are telling us.
Take, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi. Many are quick to mention a whole host of things they associate with the saint. But do they recall that he was stupid, an idiot, crazy, and unattractive? Now before you get too offended, you need to know that these were the descriptions that he himself, many of his fellow Assisi villagers, and the early biographers ascribed to him!
Francis viewed himself as one who was lesser and referred to himself as uneducated and simple, an idiot and stupid. The people who had known him from birth called him crazy as he began to change his life, some accounts even have young adults and others in Assisi jeering and spitting at him. His official biographers also described him as not particularly attractive and affirmed his less-than-impressive educational background.
The reason I bring this up is because it reflects something that is going on in the Second Reading this weekend very well. St. Paul similarly confesses to the Corinthians that he did not come to them nor does he preach elsewhere with any sort of personal charisma or eloquence. Rather, he insists, his whole mission is just to preach Christ crucified!
In the previous chapter of this Letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains how what he is preaching is “a stumbling block to Jews” (who maintain that their understanding of One God precludes the Incarnation) and “foolishness to Gentiles” (who see “divine” and “human,” let alone divine suffering, to be contradictory terms). Nevertheless, this is what we believe and it has important implications for how we should live and act in this world.
We have a memory problem because we way too often look back at those like St. Paul and the St. Francis and imagine that they were such amazing exceptions to the rule, such that we cannot relate to them or hold ourselves to similar standards. But the truth is, these guys were just two average people. Baptized, like you and me, they received the gifts of the Holy Spirit like the next person — like you and me — and actually lived this calling out.
Now we might be able to hold that some of these confessions of Paul and Francis are more about humility than they are about pure fact, but there is something very telling in their similar testimony.
This testimony is the lived witness they provided the world in following Jesus’s instruction to us in today’s Gospel. We are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world — but do we believe it?
Paul and Francis were and remain lights in the world, figures we put up on the “lamp stand” (i.e., “pedestal”) to shine for all of Christianity. But we are called to do the same thing.
And this isn’t optional.
One way to read the “you are salt” business is to think of the optional flavoring dimension of salt. Want something more savory, add some salt. However, to draw on the metaphor that we are indeed the Body of Christ, every body needs salt to live; without it, we die.
I know this first hand. Many people know that I am a runner. I’ve run for many years, and I’m not too bad at it. Four years ago I was running a 15k Road Race (about 9.3 mi), and as I ran past mile 9, with about 0.2 miles left to go, I collapsed out of nowhere. All I remember is seeing the finish line off in the distance and then waking up in an emergency medical tent only to then be taken to hospital where I stayed for two days.
I was dehydrated and my electrolytes, including most importantly salt, were way out of whack. It was serious and scary, but I came through ok. That never happened before nor has it happened since, but it is a testament to how fragile our bodies are and how important salt is in our system.
We are the salt of the Body of Christ — it cannot live without us. We need to live in such a way as to preach the Gospel of Christ with our words and deeds. But what does that look like?
This is where our First Reading comes into view. The Prophet Isaiah tells us:
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 quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
This is what it means to be salt and light in the world, to be like Paul and Francis, to bring hope and joy to a world that experiences pain and suffering. But are we up to the task? Can we answer positively to our Baptismal vocation? Are we willing to come across as foolish, or stupid, or odd, or different in the way we live in the world?