Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Salt of the Earth
Advent is a time of gazing in two directions – the coming of Our Lord at Christmastide and peering towards the Second Coming, when, ‘Christ on earth shall return to reign’ (thank you Wesley for that splendid hymn). And keeping a proper Advent requires us to consider both epochs.
However, I’d like to talk about the 'in between' portion of Advent, by which I mean the time between the Incarnation, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (hooray!), and the final eschaton, that time when the ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together’, as Isaiah puts it. Because, you see, this time - this 'in between time' - is where we find ourselves right now, dear ones. And the way I want to do this is to talk about salt. Yes, I want to talk about salt with you.
As you know, salt is a powerful biblical metaphor. Our Saviour uses it often, weaving many memorable sayings into a tapestry that describe perseverance, endurance and zeal.
Perhaps the most famous mention of the majestic mineral is from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men’ (Mat 5:13 RSV).
Naturally, the surface reading of this leaves us thinking that Jesus is simply saying for us to strive not to lose our zeal for the gospel. But a closer look, however, reveals a quandary. You see, the problem is that many times we do lose our saltiness. I think, therefore, we all know what it feels like to be ‘trodden under foot by men’.
And I propose to you that we lose our saltiness because, like love (thank you, Waylon Jennings), we’re looking for salt in all the wrong places.
Don’t believe me? Well, consider the first thing your heart tends to tell you when you hear Jesus say ‘be the salt of the earth’. Like me, you try to think of what you can do on your own merits to demonstrate that you are indeed genuinely salty. And virtue is a fine thing, folks; a necessary thing, really. We must cultivate habits (habitus, as the Angelic Doctor puts it) that mitigate against the deadly vices of sin. St. James is quick to tell us that 'faith without works is dead'. But that’s not what I mean here. I'm not talking about properly motivated good works. I’m talking about the very first thought that comes into your mind when you hear Jesus say ‘be the salt of the earth’.
I think most people tremble for a millisecond and then their fear factor kicks in and they think ‘Well, I’ll try next time to be more salty, okay God?’ Now, you may not describe it that way, but I’d bet if you were in the audience when Jesus commanded the disciples to be salty you’d be thinking just how you could demonstrate to Him that you were salty – even if it happened way back when. You’d turn inward, think about it and determine to show it, never thinking once that we aren’t born with a salt mine lurking deep within our psyche.
Woe is the man who looks inwardly for his preservation!
You see, the point of Jesus’ statement wasn’t to force people inward, nor was it so they’d simply stop trying to be salty, as the Lutheran crowd so often interprets the Sermon on the Mount. No, it was to drive them back to the source of all comfort, joy and grace; namely, to Christ Himself, the God-Man made flesh to restore us and preserve us forever.
Had Jesus said 'look inside yourselves for preservation and self-actualisation', it would be a salty metaphor alright – yeah, like having salt rubbed in a wound! If we only looked to our own hearts for salt, we’d be left to say, as doth the Psalmist, ‘My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness’ (Psa 38:5 RSV).
You see, salt – in the eternal sense of the metaphor – isn’t something we just pull off the store shelf when we think we need it. In other words, we don’t make it and distribute it as we wish. Rather, it must be sprinkled upon us from something outside of ourselves – and sometimes we need a whole lot of it and at other times maybe not as much. But we always need it. If fact, we can’t live without it! And we certainly cannot cultivate a virtuous life without it.
So Advent, that season of the now-but-not-yet, is a time to consider that our bland natures need the preservation and enhancement that only Christ’s Incarnation can bring. For He comes full of grace and truth – mighty to save and quick to heal.
This Advent, then, I propose that you consider allowing God to sprinkle you once again with His love poured out for us in Christ Jesus. This Advent, this time of eager anticipation, consider allowing God to be your strength and preservative instead of trying to prove anything to anyone, let alone to God, who knows the secrets of men (Psalm 44:21). This Advent quit trying to think about what you can do to be worthy of Emmanuel, God with us, or how you can pretend to be salty. Instead, focus only on the source of our preservation, Christ among us, as the genuine path to preservation, good works and abundant joy.
And oh yeah, go out and get some Maldon sea salt for your larder. It is the absolute best salt on the market today. And don’t tell my Francophile friends that it’s actually British! Yes, Virginia, there is good food in Britain.
Maldon Sea Salt
Unlike crystalised salt, Maldon is flaky salt skimmed right off the waters of the southern coast of England. Use it on meats, vegetables or to finish off your favourite Christmas dish.
Available at amazon.com, Williams-Sonoma and a host of other retailers.