Sunday, 5 February 2017
Salt and oil: 4 before Lent
Salt used properly and in moderation does not replace the taste of the food it seasons, but amplifies the flavour already there. Light does not create things out of the darkness, but picks out objects which already exist. Our Lord came not to destroy the natural order of creation, but to bring out the hidden sanctity of that which was, after all, created and called good by God. And so the we, the Church, are called not to overthrow the natural order, to refuse or resist it, but to find the secret savours and hidden shapes of goodness which God implanted in the world and to throw them into relief, reveal them.
The Reformers got into a terrible pickle over this, and some of their successors carry on the trend. It started with the notion that since only God is good, and only the sacrifice of Christ has the power to save, our own actions or ‘works’ make absolutely no difference whatsoever to our salvation. Faith alone matters; works, however good they might seem, are redundant. Some more extreme Protestant scholars took this as far as to say that the universe which God created has been utterly broken by the fall of Adam, and no good at all remains in it: the world and its creatures are utterly reprobate with no inherently redeeming features. Redemption is from Christ alone, by his grace.
The great strength of this view, which derived after all from St Paul and the great African bishop St Augustine, is that it emphasises the truth of our complete and utter need to rely on God. By ourselves, our own will, we can do nothing of any good. It does however cause a number of other problems. For a start, it means dismissing or at best relativising large chunks of the Old Testament, such as that in today’s first reading: the many texts which exhort us to care for the poor and needy and insist that God will judge us for our own actions. It also seems to contradict the New Testament letter of St James, who tells us that faith without works is dead faith, and this explains why both Calvin and Luther wanted that book expunged from the Bible.
But more fundamentally than that, it means a denial of the goodness of God’s creative power. It even risks making evil part of God’s intentions, which comes close to suggesting that God is not entirely good, obviously a problematic position. It seems clear to me that while there were movements in the early Church which wanted to demonise created matter and elevate the spiritual realm, these were fairly quickly rejected as heresy by the majority of thinkers - and the main reason for this is that the Early Church did its theology through reflection not just on the texts of the Bible, but of the Eucharist which was at the centre of the Church’s worshipping life. By the time of the Reformation, it is worth bearing in mind that while the Eucharist was still at the centre of the worship of the Catholic Church in the sense that the priests offered the sacrifice every Sunday, most laypeople received only two or three times each year. The life of the mediaeval Church was therefore somewhat adrift from the Eucharistic origins of the Early Church: so much so, in fact, that our own Reforming Archbishop Cranmer tried in his Book of Common Prayer to encourage much more frequent reception of Communion than was the norm in the Roman Catholic Church of those days (the move towards laypeople receiving daily is quite modern). But if we return to the first five centuries of Christian thought, we find it firmly grounded in the assumption that the weekly reception of the Eucharist is at the centre of every Christian’s life.
To understand Christian theology properly, I think we need to get back into the mindset of those early Christians and their relationship with the very created matter of the Eucharist. We need to remember that the Gospels were written for existing Christian communities which were already celebrating the Eucharist together: the Mass predates the New Testament. If we can bear that in mind, thinking of the context of the Eucharistic meal as the background in which the Gospels were designed to be read, then Jesus’ words will make clearer sense to us.
Let’s think first about what had to happen in every Christian church before the Eucharist could be celebrated. Nowadays, the priest puts in an order form to a church supplier, who then posts us a few hundred imperishable disks of dried and preserved bread disks which we can get out of the sacristy when we need them. You, the laity, pay for them through the collection, but that’s as close as you get until you receive the Blessed Sacrament after the Eucharistic Prayer.
For the early Christians, it was very different. Laypeople would have baked the bread for the service themselves. There were special prayers and blessings which went with every ingredient that they could say, and they mixed it up with their own hands. They would even have threshed the grain themselves beforehand, and to get the grain, relied on the divine providence of good rain and sun for the harvest. They were connected to the material of the bread so that you might say, the Eucharist began long before anyone even set foot in church. It was connected in the minds of the laity right back to God’s ongoing creation, preservation and nourishment of life, and their work was part of that divine work of creation. To divide God off from the world, and say that the world which brings forth grain and grape is in someway deficient of God’s goodness, and then to say that their work had nothing to do with God, would have seemed at the very least somewhat ungrateful.
What is more, having made the bread themselves, they knew what went into it, and Jesus’ comments made sense in a particular, Eucharistic way. They were the ones who had added salt to the bread, to give flavour to the dough, and also to preserve it - as they used salt to preserve meat and fish. So for them, it was obvious that when Jesus said, ‘you are the salt of the earth,’ he meant that they were bringing out the flavours of something already good in itself, and moreover, were being left by him to keep doing that for eternity, the preserving work of grace continuing through the Church after Christ had left this world.
They also knew that lamplight came from olive oil, that vital ancient produce, and this reminded them of all the other uses of such oil in both the secular and sacred realms. Ephrem the Syrian even went as far as to call Christ “the olive,” for olives have to be crushed and pressed to release their goodness, like Christ on the Cross. The oil would be used not just for heat and light, figures for the Holy Spirit, but also for binding the grain of bread as the Holy Spirit binds us together in the Church. It was of course also used for the anointing or ‘chrism’ from which Our Lord takes his title of “Christ,” the Anointed One or Messiah - the very Christ who went to his pressing from the Mount of Olives.
So while it may be right to say that our own works in their own right are of no bearing on salvation, we must be wary of drawing too firm a line between God’s works and our own. We are a part of his creation, and Our Lord imbued us with the Holy Spirit to be his hands and feet, not so that we can replace creation or dazzle those in darkness with our brilliant rays, but to continue his divine work of bringing to perfection the creation which is fundamentally, at its core, made in the goodness of God’s own image. The Eucharist is the means he has given us to participate in his saving work, so that the liturgy - the work of the people - is in hidden reality theurgy - the work of God.
Posted by Tom Plant