St. Barnabas is a living example of what Jesus calls us every Christian to do in the Gospel today. Jesus calls us to the dual vocation of being salt and light. St. Barnabas responded faithfully to this dual call and his example ought to encourage each of us. It teaches us something very important about the faith we're called to grow in during this Year of Faith and also about the New Evangelization for which the Year of Faith is meant to prepare each of us.
FALL RIVER, MA (Catholic Online). Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the apostle St. Barnabas.
Back on April 23, when we encountered his crucial action in the Acts of the Apostles, we pondered him under the title "Barnabas," the nickname the first Christians gave him as a "son of encouragement." He was one of the chief encouragers of St. Paul was well as so many of the first Christians by his example, not only in Jerusalem, but, as we see in today's first reading, the Church in Antioch.
When he arrived in Syria on behalf of the Church of Jerusalem, he, full of goodness, faith and the Holy Spirit, encouraged all of the Antiochene Christians to remain faithful with a firm heart. His work paid off. St. Luke tells us that not only were the Christians encouraged, but "a large number of people was added to the Lord."
St. Barnabas is a living example of what Jesus calls us every Christian to do in the Gospel today. Jesus calls us to the dual vocation of being salt and light. St. Barnabas responded faithfully to this dual call and his example ought to encourage each of us.
It teaches us something very important about the faith we're called to grow in during this Year of Faith and also about the New Evangelization for which the Year of Faith is meant to prepare each of us.
Yesterday in the Gospel, Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount on which we'll be reflecting for the next three weeks at daily Mass.
The main point of the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus calls us as his followers to be different than all the rest, to live by a different set of standards than good pagans who love those who love them and are good to those who are good to them. He calls us to have our righteousness surpass that of the Jewish scribe and Pharisees. He calls us in short to be like him, to be like his Father, to¬† be holy.
He began yesterday with the beatitudes, which highlighted the difference between his wisdom and the world's, between the path we're called to walk and the path that others walk. Whereas the world thinks you have to be rich to be happy, Jesus says we need to be poor in spirit and treasure his kingdom above everything. Whereas the world thinks you have to be a sexual phenom to be fulfilled, Jesus says we need to be pure of heart. Whereas the world things we have to be powerful to get ahead, Jesus says we need to be meek and not just a peace-wanter but a peace-maker. The world says we should aspire to be popular and have everyone like us; Jesus says we should rejoice when everybody persecutes us because of him. There's almost no greater way to describe how different we're supposed to be than all the rest than by saying that we're called to be men and women of the beatitudes.¬†
Today Jesus describes the double-mission we receive from that difference. With unforgettable images, he says we are to be the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World.
We've heard those expressions so often that we can easily miss the meaning of some of Jesus' important word choices.
Notice that he doesn't calls us the salt or light of the Church, because our mission is to go out and transform the whole world, beginning, of course, with the Church. We're different from the world not in the sense of being superior and aloof; we're different and we have a mission to collaborate with him, as salt and light, to save the world.
Second, he doesn't say, "You must become the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World."¬† He says, rather, "You are the Salt and Light." This is very significant. By our baptism, we have already received this identity and vocation. The key for us is whether, like St. Barnabas, we are faithful to it and live it, whether we enflesh the beatitudes, whether we distinguish ourselves from all the rest by our comformity to Christ who puts a human and divine face on each of the Beatitudes.
To grasp what our double mission entails more clearly, though, we need to understand the images Jesus used and what they meant when he used them.
We begin with salt. There were three fundamental uses of salt in the ancient world. The first was as a preservative. There was no refrigeration in the ancient world and salt preserve meat or fish from rotting. Salt was almost as valuable as gold for that preservative purpose, leading to the expression we still use, that someone is "worth his salt."
In summoning us to be the Salt of the Earth, Jesus calls us to be his instrument to prevent the earth from going to corruption. We're supposed to keep the world and others good. To do this, of course, we need to have the ability to confront the corruption that we see, both at a social level as well as at the much more common personal level. We need to confront sin and help people repent of their sins. We need to have the courage to challenge people to live morally.
The second purpose of salt will be a little gross to us moderns, but it's key for us to grasp how Jesus' hearers would have understood what he was calling them to do for everyone on earth. Jesus' contemporaries used to recycle animal dung by mixing it with salt, lighting it on fire and using it in ovens for cooking. Salt served the function of starter wood or lighter fluid.¬† The dung alone couldn't be ignited, but when it was mixed with salt, the salt would be able to be lit and then would gradually heat the dung, which kept heat for a really long time.
I think we gain two lessons here for our vocation. First, salt can redeem almost anything, turning excrement into something good. As Salt of the Earth we're called to be God's instrument for bringing good out of the evil we encounter, to help even those who were given over to evil to start to produce good. Likewise, salt is supposed to be a fire-starter. We are supposed to be ignited easily by God and capable of heating up others with faith. Thus it is totally incompatible for us to be waiting for someone else to light a fire under us. We're supposed to be the starter wood, the lighter fluid. We're called to light the world ablaze.
The third use of salt was the same as we use it today: to give flavor to what we consume. A little bit of salt can influence a whole meal.¬† This points to the fact that we, as Salt of the Earth, are called to give taste, to bring joy, to the earth.¬† So many in the world think that to enjoy themselves, there has to be a frat atmosphere, where there's plenty of booze, drugs, dim lights, lots of willing members of the opposite sex and other types of behavior that leads people to hangovers, methodone treatments, venereal diseases and so much more.¬† Jesus calls us to show what real joy in life is, to be people who are happy. We're called to rejoice at Mass and then to take that joy out into the world.
Jesus adds, however, that for us to fulfill this mission we need to ensure that our salt doesn't go flat. In many ways, the vast majority of us in the Church have seen our salt go flat. Rather than preserving the world from corruption, we've brought the corruption straight into the Church and allowed it to remain and get worse.
Just think about the clergy sex abuse crisis. Can there be any worse example of how salt can lose its saltiness?
Just think about the state of marriage among younger Catholics. Christian marriages are supposed to be an example to the whole world of the love that exists between Christ and his bride the Church. Instead, when we look at the surveys, Catholic husbands beat their wives and abuse their kids in the same rates as the general population, Catholic spouses commit adultery at the same percentages of those in the general population, Catholic engaged couples cohabit before marriage and violate the sixth commandment at the same elevated rates as the whole population, and Catholic spouses divorce at basically the same frequency as other couples, once you control for the factor of marriage preparation that all Catholics receive. The upshot is that whereas Catholic couples are supposed to be setting an example for all the rest, rather than transform popular culture as salt, they've been transformed by the culture and become salt that's lost its flavor.
We see this same insipid salt in the general practice of the faith. We're supposed to be a witness to people of fidelity to God, but 76 percent of Catholics nationwide don't even come to worship God on Sunday, the vast majority of Catholic politicians support the culture of death rather than a culture of life, many people at school or at work not only fail to give charitable fraternal correction of the bad example¬† of others but set that example by their language, their lying, their stealing, their laziness, their envy, their vengeance and more. For most Catholics, their salt has lost its preservative properties.
A similar thing goes for being a fire starter. Many Catholics go about the faith with no fire at all, wrapped in spiritual asbestos, often extinguishing the embers in others rather than fanning the flames.
And rather than giving flavor to what we encounter, we take on the flavor of what we come into contact with. Catholics often identify far more with celebrities on the covers of checkout lane magazine that with the great figures of the Bible or heroic saints of the faith.¬† Many Catholics don't bring joy to what we do. We come to Mass and most of us are unenthusiastic. We don't sing. We mumble prayers.¬† And then we go out and we live the faith in a quiet way, just trying to blend in rather than to be the spice of the world.
Jesus calls us to change all that.
That leads us to the second image. We're called to be the light of the world. We live in the midst of so much darkness: the darkness of grief, physical pain, broken hearts, depression, ignorance and sin. We're called to bring light to a world in darkness. "The just man is a light in the darkness for the upright," we read in the psalms. . How are we going to be this light?
The question for us is how, like St. Barnabas, we can bring that light to the world. Jesus tells us clearly in St. John's Gospel. "The man who follows me will have the light of life." Jesus is the light of the world. He calls us to reflect his light, to be the mysterium lunae, the mystery of the moon reflecting the light of Him the Sun, as Pope Francis is accustomed to saying. To have the light of life and being able to pass it on, Jesus tells us, we need to follow him. We must come to know his teachings and act on them. This is the way we will be able to guide others. Christians are supposed to be for the world like lights on an airport runaway during fog, to guide people safely and prevent their crashing and burning.
That means, like Barnbaras, we're called to pass on Jesus' teaching, a wisdom that the world can't know on its own, like the beatitudes we heard yesterday. Jesus teaches us how to live well, how to die well, how to love. We are called to bring that light to others. In order to do so, however, we first need to have been illuminated by Christ and live and radiate that light. Then we need to know our faith well enough to pass it on.
The second thing that gives off light is our deeds of genuine Christian love that leads others, in seeing them, to glorify God, as Jesus says at the end of the Gospel today. Just think about Blessed Mother Teresa. Her love and that of her Missionaries of Charity have brought so many, including so many non-Christians, to praise God. Pope Francis' care for the poor and abandoned have been a means by which Catholics, fallen away Catholics, ex-Catholics, and so many others have been reminded of Christ and the beauty of Christian living and loving.
For us to carry out the mission of being the light of the world, however, Jesus tells us we have to ensure that our light doesn't remain hidden. He uses the image of hiding the light under a bushel basket. At Jesus' time, when matches or cigarette lighters weren't available, it was hard to get a flame going, and so candles already lit would be put under such a basket to keep the flame alive but also somewhat protected from burning down the house when people weren't there. When people were there, however, it was supposed to be on a stand to illumine all those in the spouse.
Likewise Jesus says our faith, our love for God and others, is supposed to be visible, not hidden.
Many Catholics, sadly, are too ashamed of our faith to live it in a public way. Like many scandalous politicians, we separate faith from life. We pretend that our faith is private and shouldn't influence our public life in any noticeable way. Well, our faith is intensely personal, but it's not supposed to be private. It's supposed to be a light for others.
In short, Jesus is saying that our lives are supposed to illumine the world with his light, just as St. Barnabas did.
And so today we can ask ourselves?¬† Would others - our family members, coworkers, fellow students, friends, neighbors and acquaintances - say that we illumine them with Christian light? Would they say that they've learned the faith from observing us, from listening to us, from befriending us? Do are friends who are caught in the dark snare of some sin learn from us the path to freedom? Or do most of our acquaintances have no idea we're Catholic? Do they know more about what we think of sports teams or politics or the weather than what we believe about Christ?
We are called to be the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World in order to save the world and lead it on the path to light and life everlasting. Today, Jesus wants to give us the graces he knows we need truly to live up to these vocations. He wants to give us his help to prevent our salt losing its saltiness and our light being hidden. But we need to respond and, with the courage that comes from the Holy Spirit, to live out that what we are.
Let's ask St. Barnabas' intercession that we, like him, might be live in such a way as to encourage everyone else to remain faithful in firmness of heart so that not only may we preserve others from losing their faith but we may be the instruments of light so that a large number of people may be added to the Lord.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, MA and national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. http://catholicvoicesusa.org/ His homilies and articles are found on catholicpreaching.com
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