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Reflections on a Lesser-Known Saying of Jesus

May 23, 2013 28 Comments
"Salt shaker on white background"  by Dubravko Sorić SoraZG  Licensed under  CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Salt shaker on white background” by Dubravko Sorić SoraZG Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few lines at the end of today’s gospel that I would account as among the lesser known sayings of Jesus. They occur at the end of Mark 9:

“Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:49-50)

Some argue that these were separate sayings of Jesus just stitched together here, but I think otherwise. The who logic of the saying seems cogent and unified to me.

Perhaps a few observations about salt are first in order and then a look at the fuller saying here.

1. First of all salt was valuable. Some were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word salary).
2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds. It helps heal affliction of the skin. New Born babies were washed salt water, etc.
3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration salt was one of the commonest ways to preserve meat and fish.
4. Salt was connected with flavor. It adds spice to life, it brings out the flavor in a food.
5. Salt was also connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Lev 2:13) So, the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, afterwards it was ordered for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering:”
6. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “Covenant of Salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) “The covenant of salt” refers the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
7. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread in ancient culture. There is a Latin attested by Pliny the Elder and Virgil too: Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).

And all these things are caught up in Jesus’ use of salt as an image. Sadly today salt, a necessary ingredient for life, has been demonized as almost a poison. But none of this thinking was operative in ancient minds.

To apply the image of salt to the Christian life we should see that the Christian is to purify, sanctify and preserve this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.

And now we turn to Jesus’ words:

1. Everyone will be salted with fire two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same, purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. And fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver separating it from the iron and other metals.

Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in their own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings both images together telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”

And indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). And thus St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire to effect what ever purification has not taken place here on earth:

If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:15-15)

And the Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire:”

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. (Mal 3:2-3)

Yes, we must all be salted with fire, we must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be) in purgatory.

2. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? – In other words, we have to let the salt of God’s grace have its effects or we, who are to salt for others, become flat, tasteless and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).

What does it mean that salt goes flat? We are not used to salt going flat. But salt in the ancient world was frequently less pure. It came from the sea and was admixed with other things. And, as the compound broke down the salt could go flat (tasteless) or become bitter. In this case it was useless except as pavement.

The image is a powerful portrait of a Christian who has become debased, flat. The fall is steep: from a worthy, esteemed, necessary and helpful place (like good salt) to ignoble pavement trampled unappreciated beneath the feet of people, people they should have blessed with savor and sweetness. And thus Jesus says, if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matt 5:13)

Alas, consider the condition of this world because so many Catholics stepped back from being salt and light. Increasingly the world is therefore hell-bound and sin-soaked as never before.

And the contempt for Christians, Catholics in particular, of the world has indeed reduced us to less than pavement dust in their estimation. We can lament their lack of appreciation for our faith, but a lot of it is due to our own lack of saltiness. Salt gone flat is good for nothing, nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, this world thinks of us as flat and bitter to the taste.

We have a lot of work to do to recapture our role of adding spice and flavor to life. The good, the true, and the beautiful must be reintegrated to the lives of Catholics who have too easily cast them aside.

Fr. Robert Barron speaks of 70s Catholicism as the era of “beige Catholicism” where all the zest, color, edginess, and zeal of the Catholic faith was painted over and Catholics sought to blend in, even disappear. Welcome to the results of “salt gone flat” Catholicism. Little by little we must recover our salt, our zest, pep and even stinging quality. Flat Catholics are good for nothing.

And if the salt will not be salt, there is no salt-substitute for it. Thus Jesus asks rhetorically: if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Again there is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, the world is in darkness. If we will not be salt the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture happened on our watch when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.

3. Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. – In other words, allow the salt, allow the purification to have its effect. And only if we do this will we have peace with one another.

Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts, I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. Thus there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealously and greed and helps me be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours, neither do I resent you for having it. And there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love, be kind, generous and patient. And there is peace.

Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just like any stinging medicine we must learn that is it good for us, painful though it is. Yes, it brings peace, it ushers in shalom.

Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!

Here are some photos from saltier times. I do not idealize them, but there was a time when Catholics stood out and were anything but beige, a time when, as Belloc says, “In Catholic countries the sun doth shine, and there is music and good red wine. At least I have always thought it so, Benedicamus Domino.”

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Comments (28)

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  1. Susan says:

    The beautiful music alone lifted my soul. Thank you.

  2. Jennifer Fitz says:

    Msgr.,

    On this topic – wanted to let you know that CatholicMom.com has put together a pile of resources for online and real-life study groups of Sherry Weddell’s _Forming Intentional Disciples_. http://catholicmom.com/lawnchaircatechism/

    One of things I found in talking to folks locally about this, is that even for those who might not understand evangelization and discpleship very well, “I’m sick and tired of all my friends and family leaving the Church!” really resonates.

    OSV is offering a very steep discount on the book in conjunction with the CatholicMom.com program, so it’s a good time to pick up a dozen copies for the parish library for on-going formation over the years.

    Jennifer.

    [No need to approve this from the moderation queue if it’s not something you want on the blog combox . . . but I wanted to let you know about it, since it’s the kind of thing the archdiocese, or select parishes, might want to host. Feel free to e-mail me and I’ll put you directly in contact with Lisa Hendey so you can clear this with her as desired. Or goodness, you probably already know her yourself.]

  3. Rouxfus says:

    Father, thank you for this beautiful reflection on a rich and profound teaching of Jesus and his Body the Church, and may God continue to bless your online and in person ministries. They are edifying the Church.

    It raises a question: given the scriptural passage you quote above from Leviticus, enjoining Israel not to neglect to add salt to its grain offerings of sacrifice, has the Church honored that in the past by using a pinch of Blessed Salt in the making of communion wafers, as it prescribe in the Roman Missal (1962) Rite of Blessing Holy Water?

    Also on that subject, are ordinary communion wafers and the process where they are made blessed in any special way before they are distributed to the sacristies of the world for their ultimate blessing and consecration?

    And, finally, in your diocese, in your experience, what percentage of the faithful would you estimate are even aware of the sacramental we call Blessed Salt? What percentage of parishes make Blessed Salt available to the faithful who ask for it?

  4. GaryM says:

    Amen, Msgr.

  5. Peter D. Beaulieu says:

    Clipped and saved from a 1985ish publication, author unknown:

    “Adults, discovering their spiritual emptiness,
    look to the Church not for a breezy bon mot,
    but for the hard truths of mystical life, fasting and prayer.
    Lapsed Catholics, tiptoeing back into the Church on Sunday morning,
    look not for a communal meal and a handshake,
    but for a holy Sacrifice and the promise of redemption.
    Our faith is like a strong drink, or a plate of hearty food.
    We can make it easier to accept,
    by watering it down and taking out the spices.
    But who wants a watery drink, or a tasteless dish?
    (“If the salt has lost its savor …”)
    Our society is begging for red meat.
    If we offer a thin soup, instead, we shall be rightly rejected.”

  6. tjpf says:

    As a faithful Catholic, it hurts me deeply to know that, until Summorum Pontificum, I was cut off from my own traditions/Tradition, not by an outsider, but my own Church. The fruits of the liturgical changes following the construction and implementation of the Novus Ordo Mass are rotten and until the cognotive dissonance that seems to affect our Church leaders so greatly is resolved (as it finally was with the sexual abuse scandal) we will not heal. The beauty and reverence of the preconciliar liturgy and traditions is undeniable. Deo gratias!

  7. susanna says:

    At 2:26 is that St. Therese?
    Some beautiful photos of saltier times.

  8. I Like The Church Fathers says:

    “Fr. Robert Barron speaks of 70s Catholicism as the era of “beige Catholicism” where all the zest, color, edginess, and zeal of the Catholic faith was painted over and Catholics sought to blend in, even disappear.”

    This is all true, but I think we are recovering some of the old “color” and “edginess” with a new generation of traditionalist prelates. An example is Cardinal Burke, who holds the curial position of Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Check out the magnificent bold yellow vestments:

    http://airmaria.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Burke-01b.jpg

  9. RichardGTC says:

    In my opinion the number one cause of the decline of Western Civilization is television, more so than the pill and the atom bomb. Do I own a television? Yes! Do I intend to keep watching television? Yes! Beautiful video, Monsignor Pope.

  10. Jim3031 says:

    This brought tears to my eyes, especially the glimpses of Bernadette Soubirous and Therese Martin, two of my favorites. So much has gone wrong in the last 50 years. So many people that I care deeply about have gone from the faith in which they were raised, and it just kills me inside. I am a scientist with a great interest in the mysteries of the universe. I just can’t understand how anyone can look into this and not be in awe of the great, transcendent power which must be behind it. Maybe they don’t even bother to look for fear of finding what they don’t want to find. I don’t know. I just continue to hope and pray that somehow we can be brought out of this malaise.

  11. margaret hopkins says:

    Thank you for this beautiful video Monsignor Pope. The music is truly heavenly, why don’t we have it at Mass today.
    I would love to know what the music is , please let me know.

    @ Richard.

    You are right about television being the decline of Western Civilization. I don’t possess one, it is a combined propaganda machine and open sewer.

    President J.F.Kennedy said, One man can make a difference and everyone should try.

    • Music is Ne Irascaris Domine by William Byrd, sung by the Musical group Currende (available at iTunes). Frankly I chose the song to suggest in an edgy way that God restore the Zion of the Church: Here is the full text and translation by me:

      Ne irascaris Domine satis, (Be not angry O Lord, enough)
      et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae. (And may you no longer remember our iniquities)
      Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos. (Behold and consider, we are all your people)

      Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta. (Your Holy City has been made deserted)
      Sion deserta facta est, (Sion is deserted)
      Jerusalem desolata est. (Jerusalem is desolate)

    • RichardGTC says:

      @Margaret
      Having made that statement yesterday, today I wonder, “Is that true? If it is true, to what extent is it true?” Good thing that I am not the Pope. Myself, I don’t have cable tv. I watch a lot of movies made before 1960: a lot of Alfred Hitchcock; no James Bond. In a way, it makes me feel like an old movie snob or weirdo, but there are worse things to be.

  12. Buckeye Pastor says:

    Among the pictures, I spotted the first 4 Bishops of Toledo (Bishops Schrembs, Stritch, Alter and Rehring), several Toledo priests, and the interiors of at least 2 churches in the Diocese of Toledo. Monsignor, what is the source of these photos. And incidentally, the combination of pictures and music was most inspiring.

    • I am not sure of the origin of the footage. It came to me “over the transom” but it had some weird music, so I remastered and edited the film a bit and replaced the soundtrack. Someone told me the footage originated over at gloria.tv

  13. Rick says:

    Dear Msgr,
    I think the purifying factor for salt to retain its savor is through voluntary poverty and humility–today these, too, are seen as poisonous. Relative increases in wealth in both the laity and the clergy have made it is more difficult to retain a true spiritual perspective. When one enjoys the relative ease, comfort, and prestige associated with wealth and upward social mobility, the core spiritual virtues are displaced by worldly concerns.

  14. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Use more salt and less Mrs. Dash.

  15. Thomas F. Gallagher says:

    Thanks to Monsignor Pope for reminding us that The Covenant of Salt does indeed bind David and his descendants to the Lord God in unity. Why, then, do I see so much divisive thinking in the various blog responses here? We are meant to be the salt that flavors and preserves and heals and cleanses and binds together a suffering world. How can we be so when we lament the passing away of “saltier times” in the past history of the Church–as if videos from the 1950s could possibly represent the good old days of a 2000-year-old Church, a Church with a vast array of different yet harmonious liturgical traditions? Or when we denounce the Novus Ordo as something rotten? Defective, yes. Often devoid of beauty of language and sound as it is celebrated in this country, yes. (Try it in Britain or Italy and you’ll find it much more reverent and beautiful than in the USA.) Something positively evil? Good Lord! The real evil at work in the Church today is disunity.

  16. Justin says:

    What a lot of traditionalists fail to see is that the 1950’s were not a golden era of the Church, for if they were than why did that same Church collapse like a house of cards caught in a cool breeze from an open window a mere decade and a half later. The prelates and priests who wore the fancy vestments, prayed in Latin, studied Thomistic theology and only gave Holy Communion to those that knelt before the altar rail were the same prelates and priests who, along with Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, foisted the very revolution in the Church we are living in. What the 1950’s had was a facade of Catholic culture and piety that was rotten on the inside, like a beautiful Church whose wooden interior is being eaten from the inside by termites. Of course I’m not saying all priests and prelates were lackluster and skin deep in their faith bt enough were to go along with the disaster of Vatican II.

    Personally I prefer the old Latin Mass, the chant, the vestments and the rest of it but all those things are worthless externals unless the faith in ones heart is more than skin deep. The so called “golden age” of Catholicism here in the States was nothing more than a stage set, a facade from Hollywood meant to deceive. Hopefully today us traditional Catholics will take what we have been given with Summorum Pontificum and make it a rock solid foundation for every aspect of our lives so that we can survive and even thrive in the midst of the revolution that still seethes and rages around us in both the Church and the world.

    • Yes, I think you have some important points here. We ought not idealize in a kind of vacuum. The 1950s Church threw the revolution, The very era we admire in pictures led to what came next. Pictures show the exterior only, but they do a poor job of portraying what was already going on under the surface. I think for us today, the words of Jesus are of value: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matt 13:52)

  17. Dan says:

    Vos estis sal terrae, sed si sal evanuerit in quo salietur? Non valet ultra nisi mittatur foras ut conculcetur ab hominibus.

    We have thrown out our culture and what have we gained? This “facade” was the same as that of the church that produced saints through the ages. Is what is under the current “facade” any better than what was under the old?

    I am old enough to remember the 1950s and recall them very fondly. I think it is time to get on with reforming the reform.

  18. Luke says:

    Our little school in South Euclid, Ohio, The Lyceum, is a little salty. All students sing in choir and learn Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. We have the ancient Mass and the Divine Liturgy. Our students read “great books” and study Greek and Latin. They perform the plays of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. We have a formation in the liberal arts–grammar, rhetoric and logic; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. All of them study Euclid’s Elements–pure geometry for its own sake and not so that they can “do” something with it. Our older students read Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas.

    In order to have this kind of school, one has to convince parents and students that education is not merely about getting a job. Indeed, one need not look much further than the founding fathers of our nation (very practical men) to see they were formed in a similar manner. Of course, an education in the liberal arts was the only kind of education in medieval (very salty) times.

    Ban the text books! Read real books, sing real music, and do mathematics–not just caluculations! One will be surprised how high the human spirit can be lifted beyond this earthly existence.

    Here is an article about our little school by Jeffrey Tucker:

    http://www.chantcafe.com/2012/04/beautiful-polyphony-from-lyceum-schola.html

    Here is our website:

    http://thelyceum.org/

    Here is an article and a little video about our recent pilgrimage to EWTN to sing at the morning Mass on April 25th.

    http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/alumni/faith-action-blog/alums-bring-music-and-catholic-liberal-education-ewtn

  19. Stephen says:

    That was beautiful. Thank you. I think the time has come for all Catholics to return to their roots. Imagine going to church each Sunday and hearing something like this. Catholics need to stand apart from the rest of the world, not as isolationists but as a beacon of hope for all those searching for something to believe in. Let’s start reviving some of the old traditions. It would be fun.

  20. SSPX is says:

    The problem today with standing out/apart is that the secular/atheist government has made that illegal. Argue against homosexuality and it’s jail time for you. Preach the Gospel to the masses, and it’s heavy fines for you.

    How many of us are willing to lose it all fighting Leviathan?

    Vatican II started the process of diminishing, then marginalizing, and finally criminalizing the Catholic faith.
    It will be lifetimes before what can be understood as a Catholic church will once again rise on the North American continent.

  21. Darlene says:

    I disagree that Vatican II diminished the church and I for one do not want to return to a time of Latin. I do not want to have the priest turn Jesus away from me, not allow me to hold him in my hand and see his body and blood. I want the right as a woman to participate in the Mass as a lecture and an equal partner in the Mass.

    Guitars and the inspirational music from these new generations would be lost. There is more to a Mass then the old traditions. It is the closeness we feel to God and the community of faith we are a part of as well. We are all equal partners in our faith – no one group should be superior to another based on education and roles in the church.

    Do I want women priests – no — but I do not want to be told I cannot touch or see Jesus in the Eucharist. I have to laugh at the people that want to return to our tradition? To the original – we need to sit together around a table, break bread and pass it around. Anyone remember the Last Supper?

    And Latin is also not the original language of the church. Latin was the language of the Roman oppressors. Jesus would not have spoken Latin or many of his disciples.

    And as far as people falling away from our faith – Latin and this old traditions will not bring them back. people fall away do to many reasons. We need to examine our roles in society and why we are not attracting people. Not find more ways to alienate.

    • Aaron says:

      I stumbled on those same arguments on the National Catholic Reporter website, and I responded the same now as I did then.

      1) The Second Council of the Vatican did none of the things you want so badly. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy solidified Latin as THE language of the Mass, and established Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphany as the music styles that best suit the Holy Sacrifice. Female lectors and altar servers, as well as Mass completely in the vernacular, and the priest turning his back on God were the work of the Mass reformers, and not specifically mentioned or inferred by the Council. In regards to reception of Communion on the hand, the Universal Norm is to receive on the tongue. However, certain bishops with a love for innovation petitioned the Holy Father to allow us to receive on the hand, and he concurred, with the caveat that it is only permissible insofar as the Host is not prone to desecration (once that is occurring the pastor has a responsibility to return to reception on the tongue).

      2) Latin is NOT the language of the Church because it was the original language of the Church. Latin was adopted in the Western Church because that was the language that UNITED the disparate languages throughout the West. Despite geographical differences in Britain, Hispania, Gaul, Italy and Germania, despite the immense cultural differences, Latin united them. This was true because the vernacular languages weren’t written, like Latin was. Latin provided an effective means of unifying the faithful in written and spoken word. The same was true with Greek in the East. The use of Latin and only Latin was continued because it UNIFIED the faithful: one could attend the Holy Sacrifice in any country in the world, and despite not knowing the vernacular, would feel at home at the Holy Sacrifice. Latin is a source of UNITY, not oppression.

      3) The idea that the priest “turns away from the people” is hogwash based on pathetically poor liturgical catechesis. First, we start with the premise that Jesus is our Mediator, who stands between us and the Father, interceding for us. Second, we know the priest is the “alter Christus”, standing “in persona Christi” for the Sacrifice, and is thus leading our prayer, and leading our offering of ourselves and the Sacrifice to the Father. As a result, it only makes sense that the priest is oriented to reflect this reality.

      4) You don’t need to stand up and do anything to special equally participate in the Holy Sacrifice. “Active Participation” never meant lectoring, cantoring, or bringing up the gifts. It referred to orienting our hearts and minds towards and participating with the prayers and actions of the Mass. It referred to NOT saying the Rosary during the Mass, but joining our hearts with the prayers and actions. It referred to contemplating the mysteries of the Mass, not just showing up.

      5) “Turn Jesus away from me” is physically impossible. The Elevation would elevate the Host for all to see…as the rubrics clearly mention. The Host is Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, front and back. Unless YOU turn your back on THE PRIEST, your comment is physically impossible.

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