Reflection - Matthew 5:13-16 and in memory of St. Anthony of Padua...
Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is one that’s very familiar to all of us. It’s very familiar to me because it’s one we use often in the youth ministry community to help us impress upon young people the gifts and talents they have as well as the great responsibility they have to share those gifts with others in service. “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” we tell them. They give life it’s “season;” it’s zest, it’s flavor. And their actions can be light in the darkness for those who live in fear and need. Christ’s words to us today are a model for what and how we should conduct ourselves as Christians.
In the culture when Matthew’s Gospel was written, salt was an extremely valuable commodity. Not only was it used to season food; it was used to preserve it. In an era where refrigeration was nonexistent salt was the most effective means for people to preserve their precious food from spoiling. Salt was used for bartering or as payment. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word “solarium,” which originally meant “salt money.” Salt was also ever-present at meals and used in rituals. Having salt at the table gave the proceedings - whether meal or ritual - a sense of the sacred. It was common for two people to seal a contract or agreement by taking a bit of salt - which they always carried with them in a pouch - and exchange it with the salt of their compatriot, thus symbolically intermingling their lives as the grains of salt were mingled, becoming impossible to separate. They would say “There is salt between us,” a phrase still used by Arab peoples today so as to say, “A bond has been formed between us, a covenant has been made.” Even as recently as the 20th century the great value and symbolic power of salt was demonstrated in Mohandas Gandhi’s memorable march to the sea to gather salt in protest of the British Empire’s control of that valuable commodity in India. Many believe that his symbolic gesture of scooping up the salt and proclaiming “With this salt I am shaking the foundations of the empire” was indeed the beginning of the end of Britain’s hold on India. Throughout history, the importance and great value of salt has been demonstrated again and again.
You don’t hear it so much today, but I remember when it was fairly common to pay someone a great compliment by describing him or her as “the salt of the earth.” It meant the person was good, was genuine, was honest, hardworking, faithful. Someone who was “the salt of the earth” could be counted on to be there when you needed them. They spoke plainly and honestly, and their counsel was valued. They set an example through their words and deeds that others tried to follow.
Anthony of Padua was the salt of the earth. His entire life was one of devotion and service. After spending years in prayer and contemplation Anthony was unexpectedly called to preach one day. And though he was hesitant due to his lack of proper preparation, he proceeded with such power and conviction that those that heard him were convinced that the Holy Spirit had indeed inspired him. For the rest of his life Anthony became noted for his preaching, for his teaching, and for his reaching - reaching out to others in need in the great Franciscan tradition.
In artwork only Christ’s mother Mary is depicted holding the child Jesus more often than St. Anthony. This image of Anthony grew out of a legend of someone observing Anthony holding a conversation with the child Jesus. This vision was similar to one of St. Francis of Assisi having a conversation with the child Jesus. But Anthony was said to hold Jesus in his arms, much as he does in the statue of him here in our sanctuary. This image of Anthony can be for us - as Father Jack Wintz wrote - “…a symbol and model for each of us. The image inspires us to go through life clinging to the wonderful mystery of the humble, self-emptying Christ, who accompanies us as a servant of our humanity and of the world’s healing… Another meaningful way to interpret the presence of the Christ child in the arms of St. Anthony is to realize that Anthony was a great preacher of the gospel - a brilliant communicator of the Incarnate Word.” As Anthony carries forth the Christ child, we, too, must carry Christ - God’s Good News - with each of us every day.
St. Anthony, in one of his sermons said, "The saints are like the stars. In his providence Christ conceals them in a hidden place that they may not shine before others when they might wish to do so. Yet they are always ready to exchange the quiet of contemplation for the works of mercy as soon as they perceive in their heart the invitation of Christ." Like Anthony, we are invited by the Word of God to be salt of the earth. We are invited by Christ himself to be light in the darkness.
Salt of the earth. Valued, essential, necessary. Each one of us is the salt of the earth. God made it so. And as Christ instructs us in today’s Gospel, we must not lose our taste, our zest for life. We must be light in the darkness for others. We cannot allow our gifts to go unused or hidden away. As we go forth today and every day, let us be salt and light in the world.