Father Nicholas Lang
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is about 40% sodium. It flavors food and is used as a binder and stabilizer. It is also a food preservative, as bacteria can’t thrive in the presence of a high amount of salt. The human body requires a small amount of sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals. It is estimated that we need about 500 mg of sodium daily for these vital functions.
In the ancient world salt was a necessity and an extremely valuable commodity. Roman soldiers received a salt ration, the salarium, from which comes our English words “salary.” If salt became contaminated and lost its ability to season and preserve, it would be thrown out.
The celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote many odes which are poems that address its subject in an exalted fashion. We have poems by Keats such as “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in which an ancient ceramic vessel is directly addressed.
Neruda follows the same pattern in his “Ode to Salt,” in which he says a great deal before reaching his conclusion, where, speaking still to salt, he declares:
“The smallest, of the tiniest wave of the shaker brings home to us not only your domestic whiteness but inward flavor of the infinite.”
Someone else speaks to salt, sings its praises. We heard from him today in the gospel. Looking out at his disciples, which includes us, Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth.” Jesus talks to us as salt, a strange thing for anyone to do, but maybe not so strange if we recognize that salt is bringing home, even in its smallest quantities, “the inward flavor of the infinite.”
We are, each of us, so tiny, yet infinity shines forth to each of us. So Jesus also says: “you are the light of the world.” Most of us don’t feel like that often. But sometimes, in various matters, when we are called in this direction, we must be ready to offer the right response, to serve as salt that has not lost its flavor and to be a bright shining light in the world.
The story of a man named Martin may illustrate how our “saltiness” can spread light to someone living in the dark. He lived in the fourth century and served in the Roman army near what is now the French city of Amiens. On a bitterly cold winter night, Martin encountered a beggar pleading for help. Other passersby ignored him; Martin wanted to help but he had no money or food or shelter to offer him so he took off his big warm army cloak, used his sword to cut it in half, and gave one part to the beggar.
Later that night, Martin had a dream in which Jesus appeared accompanied by angels. The angels asked Jesus where he had received the cloak he was wearing. Jesus replied that Martin had given it to him.
When this happened, Martin was in the long process preparing for his own baptism. Eventually, he became a monk and founded the first monastery in Gaul which became an important Center for Christianity. Before his death in 397, Martin served for many years as the bishop of Tours in France.
This story shows so clearly the discipleship of Martin, even though at this point he was still awaiting baptism. We have in this story the “inward flavor of the infinite,” a saltiness that remains forever. Talking to salt is a strange thing to do. Pablo Neruda did it in one of his odes. Jesus did it in the Sermon on the Mount. Martin heard himself addressed as salt in the pleading of a poor beggar. He is now known as Saint Martin of Tours.
What is a daunting thought is that we are all called to be saints. Paul often addresses the early believers as “saints.”
One of the best definitions I’ve ever heard came from a little girl in her Sunday School class. The teacher asked if anyone knew what a “saint” is. The little girls raised her hand and said, “A saint is someone the light shines through.” Perplexed, her teacher asked where that idea came from and the girl told her that she remembered how the light shines through the stained glass windows in church.
How simple and yet how profound; also theologically correct. In the ordinary ways we may touch another’s life, especially in their dark times, God’s presence and Christ’s light shines through us.
Jesus wants us to “flavor” the world with the goodness we bring to it in his name—to add “zing” to the coldness of life and that’s a lesson from him that we should not just take with a grain of salt.