Living as Salt and Light
Light. Where would we be without it? In the dark. We need light so that our eyes might see. Indeed, have you ever noticed how the tiniest ray of light enables us to see in the darkness? Physical light is a necessity. We cannot move in safety without it. The same could be said of spiritual light. We can’t really live without it either. A soul in darkness cannot thrive no matter how bright the sun is. For it is in God that we live and move and have our being, and through his wisdom we become a “demonstration of Spirit and power” as St. Paul assures us in the second reading.
Jesus declares to our world of darkness:
“I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will have the light of life.”
Through him was the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled. Like Isaiah, Jesus demanded that we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and oppressed, clothe the naked, and satisfy the afflicted. By such works of charity, his followers become a light to the world.
Before his death, Jesus revealed to his apostles his gospel of light. Indeed, last week we heard the great summary of the gospel, the beatitudes proclaimed at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The beatitudes constitute the inner spiritual logic of God’s life at work in the human soul, orienting our hearts toward the spiritual stairway to heaven achieved by poverty of spirit and meekness, trust in God’s love, justice to all accomplished in mercy, allowing purity of heart and peace so that even in the midst of persecution, we can offer a blessing instead of a curse to our persecutors. This path of beatitude is our participation in divine light, by which the darkness of sin and death in our world can be conquered by the light of love.
Having offered the apostles the beatitudes, Jesus instructs them concerning how they can be lived. We will hear more about that in coming weeks, but in today’s gospel he uses two metaphors—salt and light—to describe what his teaching means for his disciples. Let’s now consider salt. In the ancient world it was a critical preservative: dressed with salt, meat was less susceptible to corruption. It gave flavor to foods. Though unknown then, it is an essential electrolyte that keeps our hearts beating regularly. The Christian is like salt to the world because by our witness charity is preserved, life becomes full of zest and joy, the energy of God’s grace flows through us to a corrupt world, decaying from sin. Our hearts beat with an inner joy.
The Christian is like the “light of the world,” each one a tiny ray of light, dispelling darkness, living in charity toward all, including persecutors. This light is an inner light. Its source is divine grace that becomes visible to others by our kind words, our gracious acts, our personal refusal to resort to “oppression, false accusation or malicious speech.” And thus, as Isaiah promised, the gloom of sin and death shall be overcome, or as the psalmist declares, justice and mercy of the upright will be a light shining through the darkness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has given us what he and his Church call the “New Covenant, or the New Law of Love.” He ascends the Mountain of Beatitude to remind us of the connection of this New Law to that of the Old Covenant, given to Moses on Mount of Sinai. The Beatitudes constitute the interior, the spiritual logic of the Ten Commandments, for if we seek God’s will first in poverty of spirit and meekness, we will find comfort in the midst of loss. We will worship him alone, respect his name, and keep his Sabbath, we will honor him in the midst of our families, where life and love spring forth, and where justice and mercy are learned. In loving God, we will love our neighbor, seeking justice, and readily offering and receiving forgiveness. Then, and only then, can our hearts attain purity, and can we live in peace, even in the midst of tribulation.
The person who follows these steps of interior purification, thus becomes a light to the world, even in the midst of terrible darkness. Such a person comes nowhere near the commission of sin, of idolatry, disobedience, adultery, murder, theft, deceit, or envy. The secret to keeping the Ten Commandments, Jesus reveals to us, is living a life of interior beatitude. In doing so we become salt to the earth, and light to the world, glowing embers of God’s love, witnessing to others the power of his goodness and grace.
As a youngster, I heard the beatitudes proclaimed every year. Over and over, this gospel proclaimed what it meant to be happy. But it was perplexing because I could not fathom how the poor could be happy; how the sad could be happy; how the persecuted could be happy. But I did hear about the merciful, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers could be happy, too. That made a little more sense. I conceived of the beatitudes as a kind of cookie jar full of little tickets to heaven, anyone of which would do the trick. I could reach in and randomly grab any one of the tickets. The one I latched onto was “happy are those who seek justice.” I rode along with that one for a long time, until I realized that my single-minded pursuit of justice was constantly frustrated in a world full of so much injustice, and that this quest for justice was making me miserable, rather than happy.
It was during a week of research at the Benedictine monastery library in Mt. Angel, Oregon, that I finally realized my search for justice had been lacking in humility, mercy, and charity. When the monastery bells announced the various hours of prayer, my arrogant and thirsty soul was drawn from the library to the chapel, to pray the Divine Office with the monks. There, I heard the anger, bitterness, and despair of my soul being lifted up in the prayer of the psalms to almighty God. Gradually, during the course of that week, I came to realize that I had not humbled myself before God, seeking and trusting in his holy will, and so I had deprived myself of the joy and peace that comes from such trust and mercy which alone can achieve justice in purity of heart. I realized that I had not been praying for my enemies, and that this was the source of my fear, disquietude, and lack of peace at heart. I repeatedly heard the Lord speaking to my heart in words like those of today’s psalm, which proclaims that:
“…light will shine in darkness for the upright for those who are gracious, merciful and just and that an evil report he shall not fear; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.”
Justice without trust and humility in God, without purity of heart, and mercy, is no justice at all. To be salt of the earth, and light to my little world, I realized that I needed to humble myself before God in love and trust of his mercy, and only then could I grant charity and mercy toward my persecutors. Only then would God’s peace reign in my heart. I promised the Lord that I would pray in the spirit of the psalmist. I bought a little, one-week psalter, and through regular use of it, God gradually repaired my damaged spirit, and wounded heart. I learned in time, that what I started to follow was the Way of Beatitude. This discovery helped me to regard my neighbor, and especially my enemies, in a new light—a divine light, revealing them to me as God’s children. Like St Paul, who relied not on human wisdom, but the power of God, I could finally see others—despite my weakness and trembling—as precious images and likenesses of God, as much in need of his light as myself.
So let us turn to the light of life today, who lavishly feeds us in his New Covenant of love which he has poured out for us, and which we will soon share in the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. In this Eucharist, let us pray that we might share in his life, so that we might be the salt of the earth, and lights to so many people in our world still groping for love in darkness.
“I am the light of the world, says the Lord: whoever follows me will have the light of life.”
Living from the Inside Out
Things from outside of us constantly affect how we live on the inside. Temptations, for instance, come from outside, and they bid us to live as the world would have us live. But Jesus, throughout his Sermon on the Mount, bids us to live from the inside out, to orient our spirits to the will of the Father. Are you living primarily, right now, a life tossed around from the outside in? Or have you learned, as Jesus would have you do in today’s gospel: to live from the inside out?
Sirach tells us today that if you trust in God, you too shall live. He further reminds us that we are saved if we keep the commandments. We have a choice to make between life and death, good and evil. If our soul is rightly formed in love of God, we will not sin or seek injustice, but rather live in the immense wisdom of the Lord. Sirach bids us to live from the inside out, aware always of God’s powerful love for us.
And what is the Wisdom of the Lord? Our psalm today, Psalm 119—the longest of all the psalms—is an extended meditation on the law of the Lord, and the blameless condition of those who follow it. Indeed, Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord. Doing this, gives us obedient and trusting hearts, eyes that see, and clear-minded good will that discerns and chooses what is true. The psalmist bids us to make God’s will our own, and from this holy center, from this pure heart, to live from the inside out.
St. Paul asks us to do the same: not to live according to the rulers of this age who are passing away, but rather to live according to God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory. One who lives in the Spirit of God is mature. For such persons, God has prepared a destiny of joy, beyond our wildest imagination. To achieve that destiny, with the grace of God, we must live from the inside out.
Have you ever noticed how what you are thinking about, and how you are feeling, becomes what you speak, and what you do? Our internal preoccupations swiftly betray themselves to others in our words and deeds. Our thought becomes our action. This very simple truth is at the heart of what Jesus wishes to teach us in today’s gospel. Jesus’s words in the gospel come to us, it is true, from the outside. But as we hear them, they should awaken our deepest yearnings— yearnings that Jesus knows were planted in our souls by divine power when we were made in his image and likeness—yearnings for the good, for truth, for justice, and mercy, for beauty, love, and peace. This is the natural law written in our hearts by God, and if we obey that law, which is Divine Wisdom, Jesus affirms with Sirach, the psalmist, and St. Paul, that we will enter the kingdom of heaven. We don’t get there solely by our exterior acts, but if these flow from our purity of heart, we are not far from the kingdom.
The Pharisees are far from the kingdom because their exterior acts flow from a spirit of pride, self-righteousness, and vainglory. If they had followed the Mosaic code, even the smallest letter of that code, out of a spirit of trust and love of God, their exterior acts would be pleasing to God. Jesus affirms that he comes to fulfill, not to abolish the law, the fullness of its interior spirit, which was intended to cleanse hearts, making them docile recipients of God’s love and grace.
Jesus proceeds to instruct the apostles with three examples about how they must live from the inside out, and he does so with astounding authority, with the authority of God himself. Three times in today’s gospel, commenting on the moral teachings of Hebrew Scriptures, he says: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors”. . . followed by “but I say to you…!” In each case in his teachings about anger and murder, lust and adultery, and deception in oath- taking, he does not abolish the old moral teaching forbidding the particular sin, but rather extends and expands the old commandment, reminding us that sin begins in our hearts—which must be purified—long before we say, or do, anything evil. We sin first in our inmost heart, where God’s deep wisdom is first rejected. Then, like gods, we permit and justify ourselves to inflict evil on others in speech and action. The New Law, the New Commandment of Love, demands first our interior purification, which will keep us far away from the actual commission of sin. If we keep the interior spirit of beatitude that Jesus reveals to us, we can live in the spirit of God, and the freedom of his children. If not, as Sirach asserts, we will choose evil and death instead.
The Ten Commandments forbid murder, adultery, and perjury (or false oaths). These are forbidden by Jesus, too, but he clearly emphasizes that emotions such as anger, lust, and deception are the interior sources of these sins. He has come not to abolish the Old Law, but to fulfill it. Thus, instead of holding on to anger against our brother, rather we must reconcile with him, and only then shall we find peace. Only then can we confidently approach God in genuine purity of heart. We cannot hate our brother, and love God.
Instead of committing adultery in our hearts by nurturing our lusts, we must take custody of our eyes and hearts, allowing chastity of mind to regard others, not as objects of sexual desire, but rather as beautiful children of God, and temples of his Holy Spirit. Only then can we attain purity of heart and peace. Instead of deceiving others through false oaths, and thinking that we can thereby also deceive God, we should humbly and charitably speak only what is true. Only then can we enjoy integrity of heart, before man, and before God.
These three examples of the New Law of Jesus, as summarized in the beatitudes, and as further explained by him in the Sermon on the Mount, clearly show that for Our Lord, what mattered most was the human heart which, on its own, wanders deeply into the land of temptation and sin, and, thus, into the degradation, self-loathing, and despair that results from listening to the deceptive voice of the world, which is the voice of the evil one.
But the voice of Christ, the Word of God—the one who is the way, the truth, and the life—speaks directly to hearts fashioned and known by him. Let us approach the altar of the Lord today in purity of heart, yearning for union with him in this Eucharist. Let us truly reconcile ourselves to one another in the “Kiss of Peace,” and then invite Christ to incorporate us into his Precious Body through communion with him, who has revealed to us, his little ones, the mysteries of the kingdom. Come, let us enter into His joy and peace, from the inside out.
Living the Call to Perfection
Have you ever met a perfectionist? It’s a silly question; I’m sure you have. Perhaps, you meet a perfectionist every time you look in the mirror. When the perfectionist is somebody else, what do you think of them? What are their characteristics? Well, speaking from my own experience, perfectionists are often self-absorbed, nit-pickers, often critical of others, and hard to be around. They are often nervous and restless. Being perfect isn’t easy. There’s always a complaint, something out of place, something forgotten that gnaws away—uncertainty, even fear of failure. Perfectionists often seem to know how everybody else should be living their lives and often, strangely unaware of how they might live their own. Perfectionists are often pains in the neck.
And yet all of us desire to be perfect in some way, whether as a student, or an athlete, or as a professional, or as a spouse, or parent. Indeed, this desire is part of the natural law written on our hearts, implanted there by God himself, who is All Perfect, and who has made us in his image and likeness. Could it be that the perfectionist we so dislike in others—and perhaps in ourselves—is really just a poor child of God, seeking Him who is all perfection without really knowing Who it is that we seek?
Today’s readings remind us that our deepest calling is to a life of holiness, a form of perfection gained in obedience to the law and love of God who is Holiness. In our reading from Leviticus, the Lord tells Moses: “to speak to the Israelites and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
This holiness is then defined in the following way:
“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. . .Take no revenge and cherish no grudge. . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
On a natural level, these commands for holiness are not easily accomplished. The perfectionist, as we normally understand him, isn’t capable of doing this on his own. Indeed, only in humility and obedience to the Lord as a beggar of his grace, can we achieve this kind of holiness or perfection.
The psalmist reminds us of other attributes of God that reveal his perfection, namely His kindness, mercy, and compassion for us poor perfectionists, who are totally frustrated by our inability to attain perfection by our own means. Notice that the psalmist begins with words that echo the Lord’s Prayer: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name.” This is a declaration of humility. The psalmist knows that his life, and every blessing in it, is a gift from the Lord. He knows that God’s healing power and mercy is undeserved, that his compassion surpasses our criminal capacity, restoring in us the awareness that we are his children. Without humility, there is no progress toward perfection.
St. Paul reminds us of a simple but great truth about the source of our desire for perfection:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and the the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
This is true of all of us, but how many of us actually believe it? If we did, it would cast a whole new light on our natural desire for perfection, and on the natural despair that results in recognition of our weaknesses, sinful tendencies, and personal failures. The perfectionist is a person who suffers from an inferiority complex. She lives in a straight-jacket that gets tighter the harder she tries to free herself. He lives in deepening frustration, because he cannot achieve the perfection he desires. What the perfectionist needs is a dose of divine humility.
Jesus is the source of this humility. Though divine, he humbled himself and took on our flesh, and in his Gospel, revealed to us the secret, and the deepest desires of our hearts. In his Sermon on the Mount, which we have heard proclaimed over the past four weeks, he gives us all the keys we need to unlock the secret yearnings of our spirits. So as the gospel acclamation bids us, let us keep his word:
Whoever keeps the word of Christ, the love of God is truly perfected in him.
Twice more today, as in last week’s gospel, Jesus speaks with divine authority to his Apostles. Today, similar to the teaching in Leviticus, he addresses the human emotions of hatred and revenge. The Mosaic law called for a strictly proportional retaliation against wrongdoing, but Jesus commands what seems impossible in his famous expression of “turning the other cheek” in response to violence—a command for non-violence and non-retaliation. And whereas Moses taught love of neighbor, but hatred of enemies, Jesus commands again what seems impossible: that we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.
We might cry out in exasperation, “How in God’s name can we do this!” Precisely, it is in God’s name we can and must do this! Jesus even doubles down saying as we just heard at the end of the gospel: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s think about this. The psalmist has already reminded us that God does not retaliate against us for our crimes that deserve his justice. He loves us even when we hate him. This is his perfection at work, and Jesus reminds us that as God’s children we must learn from him, and be like him.
Again, Jesus, as he does throughout the Sermon on the Mount, is calling us to an interior perfection. When he tells us to “turn the other cheek” he is telling us not to nurture an interior spirit of retaliation and revenge. He’s not asking a father to watch his wife and children being beaten or murdered, without attempting to protect them. But the father’s response must be motivated by love for his family, not hatred of the attacker. Similarly, when Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is not asking us to like them, or to like what they do. Indeed, elsewhere he calls us to hate sin with a perfect hatred, but to love sinners with a perfect love. To love someone means that we must will their best good. Love is understood here, not as a feeling but as a decision to extend our good will to another. Even in opposing terrorists, for instance, we must pray that their souls might be awakened to the evil they do, and to repent of it. They may be resisted with a tough love, but also a tender love, rooted in compassion for their tortured and disordered souls. God only knows what abuses they have endured to shape their character, and warp their understanding. God help them.
But most of the time our persecutors are much closer to home. We may even live with them. They are often members of our family. Jesus commands us to pray for them, not when we get around to feeling like it, but even when we don’t feel like it. To pray consistently for someone who insults us is not easy, but it is necessary. By obeying Jesus in this command of loving and praying for our enemies, our souls gradually are restored from malice to charity, from anger to compassion, from confusion to understanding. In short, we become more perfect, more like God, himself, who forgives our sins, and like Jesus, who laid down his life in redemption of them.
In this Sacrifice of the Mass, in which we celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death, let us allow his Body and Blood to nourish our souls so that we might forgive others, even as we have been forgiven, and so that our love of neighbor might be perfected by the love of our God, who has redeemed us.
Living in Dependence on God
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, have you ever confessed committing the sin of not trusting in God? I don’t know how often our priests hear this sin confessed, but my guess is probably not very often, and yet this may be one of the most pervasive sins of our time. Today’s readings are a powerful reminder that trust in God is to the spiritual life what breathing air is to our physical life. Yet, most of us do not trust God and, thus, live lives of anxiety and restlessness, full of fear and uncertainty. This takes both a spiritual, and a physical toll on us. We must become like St. Augustine, who declared a great truth at the beginning of his book, Confessions: “Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in thee.”
Both the first reading and the psalm today, meditate on this truth. Four times we proclaimed the responsorial: “Rest in God alone, my soul.” The psalmist goes even further proclaiming that:
“ONLY in God is my soul at rest. . .He ONLY is my rock and my salvation my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all.”
From God, the psalmist declares, comes our hope, our safety, our glory, our strength, our refuge. From God, it might be added, comes our life, and every breath we take. The psalmist then offers the remedy to all our disturbances and troubles: Trust in God at all times. This is the antidote to fear, anxiety, and restlessness.
Even when we think about God, which we usually try to avoid doing, we often believe that he isn’t paying attention to us, or that he is angry with or punishing us. All our woes and troubles seem to confirm this suspicion, a suspicion which isn’t a new one. It existed in Isaiah’s time, and in Isaiah we find an answer to it. The people of Zion believed, Isaiah tells us, that the Lord had forsaken and forgotten them. But the Lord’s response to them through Isaiah is comforting. The Lord replies:
“Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will NEVER forget you.”
God has each of us on his divine radar screen or, to put it in biblical terms, in the palm of his hand. His awareness and knowledge of us is complete, perfect, and everlasting. He NEVER forgets us, even though we often forget him, which is the source of our anxiety and restlessness.
Paul, who thought a lot about God, and his gracious mercy, expresses a different sense of trust in the second reading. He says that it does not concern him in the least that he might be judged by anyone, any human tribunal. He was content to wait for the only judgment that counts, the Lord’s judgment. Indeed, we should not worry about the judgment of others, but only about the judgment of God, and even His judgment is less a matter of worry than of trust, trust in Divine Mercy for sinners.
In the Gospel today, Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount” with one of the most beautiful and inspiring passages for anxious sinners, which calls us to complete dependence on God, or as saints and mystics have put it, to abandonment to God’s holy and perfect will. This is what we pray in the Our Father when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Our Father is a prayer of trust, revealed to the Apostles in the Sermon on the Mount, just before the verses we hear today.
Jesus reminds us that we are more precious to God than the lilies of the field, or the birds of the air. God’s providence suffices for them. He feeds the birds and clothes the flowers of the field. God knows that we need food and clothing, and he provides it to us if we cooperate by working for them. Jesus asks a telling question: “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” He answers this with a resounding, of course not, so why worry? Indeed, he emphasizes that our first and greatest need is to: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” But how many of us take him at his word? Do we not worry constantly about our futures, about the safety of our children, about the insecurities of our world, about the soundness of our retirement income, and countless other things? But fear and anxiety do not indicate trust in God, nor are they consistent with living out our Christian life of beatitude, which must begin, before all else, in a fundamental and full trust in God’s providential love.
Fear is disabling, sometimes in dread, even paralyzing. It keeps us from doing what’s right, and compels us often to do what is wrong. Constant worrying ultimately leads us to despair, in which we abandon hope and trust in God, which is a fatal spiritual illness. Against this, Jesus issues this command: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.”
The one who wants us to worry about tomorrow is the devil. In his demonic toolbox, fear, shame, and anxiety are among his favorite instruments. He uses them to keep us from making good confessions, or any confession at all. His gospel sounds like this: “You are worthless. God hates you. Your sins are too great. The priest will make fun of you.” If we fall prey to this advice, we never attain the riches of God’s mercy. The devil fosters our anxiety by asking us to worry about tomorrow, and tomorrow, as it creeps it petty pace. And like Lady Macbeth, we fall into deeper deceit and darkness by projecting our fears into the future. Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel that “one day’s evil is sufficient for itself.” In each day, he will give us sufficient grace to cope with the evils of the day. It’s the devil who wants us to contemplate how long we will have to suffer with an unsupportive spouse, a difficult disease, the prospect of the impending death of a loved one. Jesus assures us that his grace is available to us in these challenging circumstances, one day at a time. Indeed, one day at a time, Sweet Jesus, one day at a time, like the Israelites who received quail and manna in the desert one day at a time, building trust in the Lord their God.
In the year 2000, St. John Paul II declared that Divine Mercy Sunday should be celebrated by the universal church on the Sunday after Easter, remembering the passion and death of Jesus and his Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and reminding us of the enduring and complete Mercy of God, and the Love of his Son, Jesus, who gave over his human life for us, his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the One Father in Heaven. And so we celebrate the Divine Mercy every year. The great prayer of mercy given to us by Jesus, through St. Faustina, is simply this: “Jesus, I trust in you.” The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and its closing prayer, remind us:
“that in difficult moments, we might not despair, nor become despondent, but with great confidence, submit ourselves to God’s holy will, which is Love and Mercy Itself.”
Christ’s act of mercy should give us supreme confidence in God, to whom we should offer our complete trust. Our lives are in his hands, the most trustworthy hands that exist in the entire world, a world that is, itself, a gift from God to his beloved children. God loves us with an everlasting love. We can depend on it.