The Word of God has converted hearts, transformed lives and inspired action in millions of people for two millennia and more. It has also played a major role in shaping our language and culture, and so our thinking and communication; the King James Bible stands with Shakespeare as the two principal sources of modern English. It is from the Old Testament that we get phrases like ‘bottomless pit’, ‘forbidden fruit’, ‘scapegoat’, ‘eye for an eye’, ‘a man after my own heart’, ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’, ‘a fly in the ointment’, a ‘den of thieves’ and ‘the writing is on the wall’. The Psalmist gave us turns of phrase like ‘clean hands’, ‘bite the dust’, ‘from strength to strength’, ‘at wit’s end’ and ‘a broken heart’. We have Job to thank for ‘the root of the matter’, ‘the skin of your teeth’, ‘woe is me’ and ‘weighed in the balance’, and Isaiah for ‘seeing eye to eye’, ‘a drop in a bucket’, ‘holier than thou’ and ‘rise and shine’.
St Paul in turn gave us figures of speech such as ‘the powers that be’, ‘a law unto themselves’, ‘all things to all men’, ‘the twinkling of an eye’, ‘a stumbling block’, ‘like a thief in the night’, ‘a thorn in the flesh’, ‘suffer fools gladly’, ‘the good fight’, ‘a fall from grace’ and ‘God forbid’. But it is from Jesus Himself, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, that we have so many idioms such as ‘brood of vipers’, ‘go the extra mile’, ‘fall by the way’, ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘out of the mouths of babes’, ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, ‘a house divided’, ‘crumbs from the table’, ‘the blind leading the blind’, ‘by their fruits’, ‘the signs of the times’, ‘what God has joined’, ‘the straight and narrow’, ‘get thee behind me’ and ‘the flesh is weak’.
So the Biblical authors have shaped the way we think and talk, and not just us Christians, but as heirs to this civilisation and its languages. Another one of those ipsissima verba of Jesus recorded by Matthew is ‘salt of the earth’ (Mt 5: 13-6). What exactly did Jesus mean when He said we Christians must be salty?
Well, the first thing salt was for the ancients was a preservative. It kept meat, fish, cheese and other foods edible in a world without refrigeration. And one of the tasks Christ gives His disciples is to preserve His teaching fresh and intact, and hand it on pure and uncorrupted. Some people think this makes Christians fundamentally conservative, always rehashing old sayings and old ways of thinking as I did to begin with today. And it is true that we are grateful recipients of the Word of God, of a corpus of teaching, of a beautiful tradition of worship and action for justice and compassion. Our task is, indeed, to conserve these things faithfully and transmit them to future generations.
But living traditions, as opposed to museum exhibits, offer more than relics of bygone ages. Our religious-cultural-linguistic tradition equips us to respond well to new challenges and ideas; they allow us to enter into dialogue, assess these things critically, and adopt what is helpful, without being swept along by the tide. And so we come to the second use for salt: we add salt to eggs or soup not to preserve them but to flavour them, indeed to bring out what’s best in that food. Christians don’t just conserve their tradition, important as that is; rather they bring their faith to their society, its institutions and activities, its culture and members, to season them with God’s word and make them more wholesome and flavoursome. In the process their own tradition expands and evolves, so they bring to their next encounter those new experiences as well as their ancient wisdom.
What, then, did Jesus mean when He warned against Christians becoming unsavoury? Surely He knew that sodium chloride will only ever taste like salt. Well, in the ancient world salt was often contaminated by other minerals, diluting its effect or making it unpleasant to taste. The risk for us Christians is that, affected by the world around us, we will fail to preserve what we have received or to flavour what is around us. In the dialogue with culture the Gospel can be drowned out and we can end up converted to a weak kind of ‘Christianity Lite’ rather than converting those around us full-cream Catholicism.
Which is why Jesus gave us a second image for our discipleship: we are a ‘light to the world’ that must shine out (Mt 5:16). As St John Chrysostom pointed out, Christ said ‘in the sight of men’ quite deliberately: our rituals, creeds and good works are not private affairs, intended to make us feel good inside; the light we’ve received is not just for us. Pope Francis has warned against a Christianity that hides at home, getting stale and mouldy, rather than going out into the fresh air of the streets. Your light must be a beacon for others, Jesus insists. “As a lamp we carry enables others on the road to see and follow the right course,” Chrysostom observed, “so also the spiritual light which shines from blameless conduct illuminates those who cannot see clearly how to live a virtuous life.” By helping those onlookers “purify their inward vision”, Christians “lead them to live upright lives, to walk henceforward in the path of virtue.”
Reflecting upon Christians as salt and light, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that “All Christians, wherever they live, by the content of their speech and the witness of their lives, must manifest the new person they put on in Baptism… so that others, seeing their good works, might glorify the Father and more perfectly perceive the true meaning of human life.”
To put on the mind of Christ from Baptism onwards is to receive a new lens by which to perceive reality, a new imagination with which to interpret it, a new language with which to speak of it. True Christians spice the world around them, rather than simply endorsing what’s already there. The enemies of Christianity often appreciate this better than we do, which is why they press us to do little more than echo the wisdom of the age; and, when that fails, they seek to constrain us through laws and policies and eradicate any last remaining ‘whiff of incense’ in our culture, such as the sanctity of life idea that protects the elderly, disabled and dying from the false compassion of euthanasia.
The Vatican Council went on to articulate, for the first time so clearly and authoritatively, the unique contribution of the laity to the new evangelisation: “Lay people are called above all to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where she cannot become salt of the earth unless by means of them.” Salt preserves; salt flavours; and, thirdly, salt dissipates far and wide, affecting whatever it touches. Each of you has your particular dish, your own situation to flavour; without you, it may well not happen.
In your homes, workplaces, friendships, in your political, cultural and leisure activities, in all the places you lead and serve, your presence is irreplaceable if the Gospel is to be seen, spoken, tasted. Only you can bring the teachings of Christ to bear on the activities and relationships in those places; only you can prepare the way for others there to encounter Jesus Christ. May you flavour all around you with the seasoning of Christian faith, hope and love!
This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass on the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, at St Mary’s Cathedral on 5 February 2016.