Friday, February 07, 2020

Light, Salt, Temple: Readings for the 5th Sunday in OT

Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel
The Readings for this Sunday remind me of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which I’ve had the privilege of visiting a couple of times.  This beautiful church is built on a hillside and is easily visible from much of the modern city of Nazareth.  The architect designed the dome of the basilica to look like a lighthouse, symbolizing the light of Christ going out to all Nazareth and the rest of the Galilee region, in keeping with the theme of last week’s Gospel, “Those walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

The theme of light continues in this Sunday’s Readings, in which Jesus calls the people of God, the Church, to be a kind of lighthouse or beacon calling the whole world to the safe harbor with God.

1. The First Reading Isaiah 58:7-10:

Thus says the LORD:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

I did my doctoral dissertation on the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8-55) and the history of its interpretation.  I spent a good bit of time analyzing Isaiah 58, this passage before us, because it is filled with Jubilee themes.  By the time the prophet Isaiah composed this oracle, the ancient Jubilee Year was a dead letter, a sacred “blue law.”  No longer were servants and property released every fifty years, to be returned to their ancestral owners.  No longer was every family and clan in Israel excused of their debts and re-united on their own familial property at least once in a lifetime.  Nonetheless, the ideals of the Jubilee Year, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, seem to be inspiring the prophet as he speaks to Israel on behalf of God.  Although the ancient laws of justice and mercy were no longer enforced, the people could still practice the principles of justice and mercy in their own lives: care for the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and attending to the needs of their own family members.  These actions will draw the presence of God, described as “light,” down to his people, and remove the darkness and “gloom” (=sadness) of the community.  The language here may be a reminiscence of the journey of Israel through the wilderness, when the Lord went before them as a pillar of light by night, and also as their rear guard.  The Exodus was a great act of mercy and justice for the poor and oppressed Israelite slaves.  Thus, if Israel puts into practice the spirit of the Exodus, the will find themselves once again on a triumphant journey with God leading the way and protecting them from behind.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9:

R/ (4a) The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
Light shines through the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious and merciful and just.
Well for the man who is gracious and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
R/ The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
He shall never be moved;
the just one shall be in everlasting remembrance.
An evil report he shall not fear;
his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
R/ The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
His heart is steadfast; he shall not fear.
Lavishly he gives to the poor;
His justice shall endure forever;
his horn shall be exalted in glory.
R/ The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.

This psalm praises the just man who is generous with his goods, giving to the poor: in other words, the kind of man who takes the prophetic exhortation of the First Reading to heart.  As in the First Reading, there is “light” for those who put mercy and justice into practice.  By being a blessing to others, they come to experience blessing themselves.  Notably, the practice of compassion and generosity leads to the experience of internal peace: “an evil report he shall not fear … his heart is steadfast, he shall not fear.”  Those who cling to riches often lose internal peace, because of fear that those riches may be lost.  But the generous man, who practices detachment from his wealth by voluntarily giving it away, experiences interior peace because his deepest desire is not the possession of wealth, but the experience of love and communion with other persons.

3.  The Second Reading is 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of Spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.

St. Paul was not a trained Greek orator, but the Greeks placed high value on the art of rhetoric, especially in ancient and wealthy seats of Greek culture like the city of Corinth.  In this passage, the Apostle defends himself against those who ridiculed him and his message because his Greek was common and his thought shaped by Jewish rather than Hellenic standards of argument. 

St. Paul points out that the power of the Good News of Jesus is not dependent on rhetoric or literary devices, but on reality.  The Holy Spirit has the power to transform lives, to forgive sins, to heal sickness of body and soul, to lead us into eternal life with God.  These are realities, facts, not word-pictures or theatrical oratory.

Those who seek a show may not be impressed with the cross of Christ, which is a sorry spectacle when viewed with the eyes of entertainment.  This applies also to our modern forms of worship.  Great preaching and great music are well and good, and by all means let’s try to honor the Mass with the best possible, but they cannot be the basis of our faith.  Preachers and musicians come and go.  The reason for our attendance at worship should be to witness again the miracle of the cross and resurrection, enacted before our eyes in the Holy Eucharist.  It’s not impressive by the world standards.  You can see a better show on television or in the local theater or stadium.  But it is a “demonstration of the power of the Spirit” when bread and wine is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and it does have real transformative power in our lives provided we receive it in faith and not disbelief.

Sunday Mass may not be as “exciting” perhaps as the presentation put on by the mega-church down the road, but Mass is real, a brute fact, not just words.  Preaching and music may be more impressive somewhere else, but the crucified Christ is really present here under the form of bread and wine, for those who wish to receive him.

4. The Gospel is Matt 5:13-16:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”
We are reading through the Gospel of Matthew in these Sundays of Ordinary Time, and now we are into “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 5-7), often called “The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.”  I have a talk series on this sermon here.***

Had it not been the Feast of the Presentation, last Sunday we would have read the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount, namely the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12).  Jesus’s act of climbing a mountain and then teaching people divine truth calls to mind at least two figures of the Old Testament who did the same: Moses, who climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God and deliver it to Israel (Exodus 19-24), and Solomon, who took his throne on Mt. Zion and from there dispensed divine wisdom to all the nations (1 Kings 4).  Jesus is both a New Moses and a New Solomon, a divine legislator and a king imbued with heavenly wisdom. In content his teaching often resembles (and corrects!) the law of Moses, but in form he uses imagery, literary devices, and word play, as Solomon did in his famous “proverbs” (Heb. mashalim; Gk. parabôlê).

In this passage about the disciples as “salt” and “light,” Jesus makes generous use of Temple imagery that goes unnoticed by most contemporary readers.

The image of “salt” is related to the Temple, because the priests made heavy use of salt, sprinkled on the sacrifices and elsewhere as a symbol of purity and as a seasoning and preservative for the sacrificial meat intended for human consumption.  Apparently it was also used in covenant rituals, because the Chronicler speaks of the kingdom of the LORD being given to the House of David by a “covenant of salt” (2 Chr 13:5; see also Num 18:19).  So salt is rich in ideas of purity, preservation, covenant fidelity, proper worship, and savor. “Salt that loses its savor” would be salt from which any true sodium has leached out, leaving behind only other minerals and impurities, fit only to be used for traction on roads.

“Light” was also associated with the Temple, for on the basis of prophecies like Zech 14:7-8, the Jews believed that in the end times the Temple would be the source of continual (24-7) light for the people of Israel.  This belief was enacted each year at the great Temple feast, the Festival of Tabernacles, during which the Temple courts were lit up twenty-four hours a day by huge menorah that had to be lit by young men on ladders.  Jewish tradition describes “no shadow being in Jerusalem” during these ancient celebrations.  It was during or just after this Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2) that Jesus taught his disciples, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).

A “city set on a mountain” is a clear reference to the Temple city Jerusalem, the most famous “city set on a mountain” in all Israel.  In fact, the ridgeline on which Jerusalem sits is one of the the highest in all the traditional territory of Israel, with the result that travel to Jerusalem was typically described as “going up” (Heb. ’alah) to Zion, since one literally had to ascend to the city from almost any other location.  The Temple, in turn, was built on the highest point of the ancient city, dominating the skyline.

The language of lighting a lamp and setting it on a “lampstand” so that it lights the whole “house” constitutes an oblique reference to the famous golden lampstand that stood in the Holy Place, lighting the interior of the House of God and showing the way to the Holy of Holies.

Thus, the language of the passage suggests that the body of Jesus’ disciples are to become a living Temple, replacing the stone Temple of the Old Covenant.  This concept of a holy congregation of worshipers becoming a Temple for God was present already among the Essenes and can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q174; 1QS 8:5).  However, it is the community of Jesus, not the Essenes, that constitutes the true Temple.  So St. Paul teaches in Ephesians (2:19-22).

Light and salt both have disinfectant and preservative properties.  Meat and fish were dried in the light of the sun and salted to preserve them. The Church as “light” and “salt” refers to her role to identify and counter-act sin, and so preserve society from total decay and dissolution.

But light and salt are also key to celebration and joy.  Great feasts (think Christmas, or the Easter Vigil) are celebrated with an abundance of candles and other forms of light through the night as a sign of jubilation.  Furthermore, all feasting at such times would be bland and tasteless without salt to season the turkey, ham, or other main dish.  So the Church likewise is the cause of celebration and joy to all society.  After all, the “most wonderful time … of the year” even for secular society is a liturgical season borrowed (and somewhat mangled) from the Catholic Church.  Secular society doesn’t really have anything to be joyful about; it is doubtful that the concept of “joy” even has meaning in an atheist worldview.  One can be happy without God, perhaps, at least temporarily, and maybe under the influence of some drug or other stimulation; but to be joyful one must have a relationship with God.  So the Church becomes (or should be) the source of joy for society at large.

It is particularly in the “good deeds” of the Church (both corporate good deeds [orphanages, shelters, clinics, etc] and individual good deeds) that “shine” before others and become a witness to a loving God.  How true this has been throughout history, as Catholic hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, shelters, kitchens, orphanages have brought hope and healing to millions and pricked the consciences even of unbelievers into creating such institutions of their own.

But for each of us at Mass this weekend, we need to consider how we may let the light of our own personal good deeds shine before others as a witness to the Gospel, inspiring people to “glorify the Father,” that is, come to worship the true God.  This text, in other words, is calling us to “lifestyle evangelism.”  Is my own life a radical enough expression of God’s love that my co-workers and neighbors can notice something about me, something that gives them joy and hope?  This is the kind of lifestyle to which the Church has been consistently calling us: a life of joy connected with generosity to the poor (as in the First Reading and Psalm) which shows that we are not competing in the same materialistic “rat race” to temporal happiness as the rest of the world, but our joy and light comes from a different place.
Would you like  to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation in person?  I'm leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in June 14-23, 2020.  Would love to have you come!  Still taking late registrations here: 

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