Did anyone ever call you ‘the salt of the earth’? It’s a great compliment to get: it says you are completely reliable, and honest through and through. It also suggests that your goodness is not showy; you work away behind the scenes, doing good, never calling attention to yourself.
     Salt doesn’t put itself on show: there’s nothing much to see. In itself, in fact, it is colourless; what makes it look white is the presence of trace elements of calcium and magnesium. Then it loses itself in the food, giving itself up completely, you might say, to bring out the taste of what you eat.
    Salt served as currency in some ancient civilisations. The English word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word sal, ‘salt’: soldiers in the Roman army were paid a salt allowance. Even though it is colourless in itself and becomes invisible when it does its work, that's how important salt is! Did you know that it is also used in some refrigeration processes, in dyeing, and in the manufacture of soap and glass, and even in making the prisms and lenses of instruments used in the study of infrared radiation? It has a hundred uses, and yet it never brags about it; it does its work humbly and anonymously. That Jesus called his followers ‘salt of the earth’ means more than could be said in a very large book.
     Did anyone ever call you ‘the light of the world’? If you are the salt of the earth you probably would be mortified at such a compliment! Light would appear to be as visible as salt is invisible. Light would appear to be all show and appearances: to be ‘in the limelight’ means to be centre-stage. (‘Lime’ refers to the way in which they used to get intense white light in theatres before the age of electricity.) So if you are the salt of the earth, the last thing you would want, probably, is to be the ‘light of the world’!
     And yet... light is invisible in itself! It makes visible anything it falls on, but in itself it is invisible. This is a great natural mystery, and it bears thinking about forever. In outer space, which is shot through with light in every direction, there seems to be only pitch darkness, because there is nothing for the light to fall on. Light has that in common with salt, that it is not for itself but for something else.
    And God is light! “O Light Invisible, we praise Thee! / Too bright for mortal vision,” wrote T.S. Eliot, in a prayer-poem in ‘Choruses from The Rock.’ Like salt, like light, God is invisible. “God is light,” said St John (1 Jn 1:5). And light is God's element. St Paul recognised the presence of God in a blinding light (Acts 9:3; 22:6); the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds at Bethlehem (Lk 2:9); God “dwells in inaccessible light” (1 Tim 6:16); and Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12; 9:5).
     It seems to point to one thing: if you want to do any good in the world you will have to be willing to disappear! Everyone complains about politicians who only do things in order to be seen and to scoop up votes. But the complaint is valid against anyone at all, not only politicians! “I am the light of the world,” he said; but also “You are the light of the world” (today’s reading; see also Eph 5:8). “Let your light shine before others, so that seeing your good works they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.” That is the nature of light: to make others shine. It is the nature of God, John says. As it is the nature of salt to be useful to others in a hundred ways, claiming nothing for itself.

Donagh O'Shea OP

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.