As a Catholic teen growing up in one of the most Catholic areas of the United States of America, I never would have considered abandoning my faith. But neither would I ever have considered getting excited about it. Why should I? Nobody else in my parish seemed excited. The teens in the parish went wild at the rock concerts we attended, and the adults got excited about New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl parties.
Yet when I looked around at these same people during Sunday Mass, I saw a sea of blank faces. So I assumed being Catholic was about denying yourself a bit of fun now so that something really bad wouldn’t happen to you later (namely, hell). Of course, I did not want to settle for a dull life, so I paid my weekly dues at church and tried to avoid real serious sin as I grabbed for as much gusto as I could.
From the looks of things, you’d think that one of the beatitudes was “blessed be the bland.” To the contrary, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount “you are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt is spicy, not dull and boring. It actually has the power to make insipid food tasty and to preserve food that would otherwise spoil. Salt was so valuable in antiquity that it was often used to pay soldiers their wages. The Latin term for salt is actually the origin of our English word “salary.” Hence the expression “he’s worth his salt.”
Jesus is very clear that he is not paying for salt that has no flavor. It is good for nothing but the trash heap. This reminds me of what the he says elsewhere to a group of less than impressive Christians: because they were lukewarm rather than hot or cold, he intended to spew them out of his mouth (Rev 3:15-16). In other words, lukewarm Christians make God sick.
This is not to say that one must be an extrovert, entertainer, or brilliant lecturer to be a successful Christian. It’s not about personality . . . it’s about heart. It’s about approaching your Christian life with passion rather than with a yawn. After all, on the day of Pentecost Jesus did not rain down Prozac from heaven, but fire. In the presence of fire, people don’t meander and mope. They move, and move quickly.
We can’t be the light of the world unless we’re on fire. The Christian life cannot be lived on autopilot, in robotic fashion. That sort of existence is not living, but surviving. And it will attract absolutely no one to Christ and the Catholic Church.
So how did I move from being a lukewarm Catholic teen to a salty, fiery one? Simple. A friend of mine went through a change. She had been troubled and had gotten into trouble. But I saw a change in her lifestyle and her countenance. As she told me what Jesus meant to her, there was joy and peace on her face and a quiet passion in her words. Her shining countenance got my attention. Her “tasty” words intrigued me. They led me to a Catholic renewal group in a nearby parish where I saw many changed lives and lots of radiant faces. And so I joined them as they pursued a life of prayer, evangelization, and service to the poor in the inner city (Is 58:7-10). They did their job of being salt and light.
Are you doing your job? Are you hot or lukewarm, spiritually alive or comatose? Here’s a test for you. Answer honestly. Are you excited about prayer, or is it a chore? When you have extra time and money, how much of it do you ever invest it in spiritual growth or apostolic service? Are you “too busy” to get to confession regularly, attend a parish mission, or get involved in serving the needy? And finally, if it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) — Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalms 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; First Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16. This series for reflections on the upcoming Sunday Readings usually appears on Saturday.