Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Feb. 5, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Feb 5, 2023 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Feb. 5, 2023

Does anyone salt their babies these days?

It was news to me too, so I asked Michele, who teaches brand new parents about all of the important health things. She’d never heard of it either. (It is mentioned in Ezekiel.)

It is still done in some parts of the world, notably Turkey. One young man born in the Anatolian territories only learned of the tradition by overhearing his mother tell a circle of her friends that it had been done for him! She told them, “My kid never sweats. As soon as he was born, we wrapped and salted him.” He couldn’t imagine it, and she explained the salting ritual thusly; “After the fall of your umbilical cord, your grandmother sent a message to a leading family member calling for your salting.” The ceremony began with prayers over the prepared salt, then they thoroughly scrubbed his whole body, especially neck, armpits, privates and palms with salt “so that you would develop well, grow up fast, you would not smell bad or sweat when your babyish smell wore off…and your wounds would heal quickly.”1 It was an act of protection, belonging, preserving of infant wholeness.

Ancient Romans placed a bit of salt in the mouth of an eight day old infant, a ritual adopted later by some Christians before baptism. In the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, the current Book of Common Prayer (1991 edition) includes this pre-baptismal rubric; Salt is put into the water in the form of a cross. Then this prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, you have created salt for the use of man, we ask you to bless this salt and grant that wherever it is sprinkled and whatever is touched by it may be set free from all impurity and the attacks of Satan; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Salt was costly and highly prized for it’s antiseptic, preservative, and transformative properties long before Jesus’ time, and some traditions continue on today. Does anyone throw a pinch of salt over your left shoulder? The Medieval Church held that salt could drive off the devil or his demons, who might come behind you at your left shoulder—with your guardian angels on the right, of course.

Because of it’s value and importance any waste of salt was a bad sign, perhaps even a portent of evil. You see it depicted in Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ showing Judas Iscariot unknowingly having just knocked over the saltcellar spilling salt on the table. Da Vinci’s generation understanding the symbolic presaging of something dire.

Even before Jesus’ time, a Roman soldier’s pay consisted, in part, of salt. This was known as his salarium, it is where we get the word salary. A soldier’s salarium (salary) was cut if he ‘was not worth his salt.’2

So when Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” they knew the widely defined metaphor around it’s importance. The practice of guests being seated according to importance was such that you could calculate your rank by how far you were seated from the saltcellar. The most distinguished sat with the host just “above the salt” at the head of the table, those farthest from the salt were considered less esteemed. It would have made a great parable, and I was delighted to learn that the expression “sharing the salt” came to be a way for Christians to refer to table fellowship. At the Lord’s table are all welcome and all are valued.

We hear of salt throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, symbolic in Israel’s covenants with God. We read of ‘the covenant of salt’ — since salt invokes permanence because of it’s preserving abilities, and purification for it’s use in sacrificial offerings, and being blended in incense for worship. Valuable as it was salt is not eaten by itself, it is added to bring out the full flavor of food, as one monastic puts it, “salt gives wholeness.” Alone it has its own taste, “yet it loses itself in transforming what it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both salt and the food are transformed.”3

“You are the salt of the earth.” With all of this background in mind, one can see that’s a powerful statement and a daunting call, but Jesus says you are, not you should be or you must try to be… and he says to his disciples, plural. Yes, they each hear individually and they hear as a close ‘family’ of friends. Jesus speaks to each of them and all of them as a community.

“If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Chemistry class says that’s impossible, so stay with the metaphor.) Have you ever felt spent in a way that leaves you or life around you tasteless, bland, spilled out? Jesus doesn’t ask if it can be restored, but rather, how. So what brings zeal to your heart? What makes your colors brighter, the air more vibrant? Seeing each other, singing, serving, praying, making ministry work. Remember your first hug after the pandemic so isolated us? We’re still making up for that loss of shared salt! We know our bodies literally need it; so what is the salt your soul craves? When it feels missing we are reminded that we don’t do this alone. Right here you are among the community of disciples we get to walk with, learn with, be salty with!

Just as Jesus uses the present tense and plural address with salt, he also does so saying “You are the light of the world.” Not later, now. We are salt and we are light. He is telling us who we are and what that looks like. I know Jesus as the light of the world, but rarely do I think of myself that way, and yet— apparently Jesus does, and that is true for each of us and for all of us in community. We might think we are each only one tiny light of little power, but two things are true: First of all, we are each in our own way brighter and more powerful to others than we probably think. For example, I had to cover the little light on the portable microphone in my pocket because that gadget is so darned bright, and it took three layers of black electrical tape to keep it from shining through my alb. Never underestimate the power of the light God has implanted in you. Even when our spiritual warning light flashes, ‘Low Energy’ — that divine spark is still present. Which brings us to the second way; gathered together we can really light things up! Jesus wasn’t calling out each individual’s solitary ability to bear light, he was in the midst of them and speaking of the collective light of their community. Like this radiant family of friends in Christ right here.

If you’ve been here for the Easter Eve Vigil service you have seen this come to life. We start the fire to light the Paschal Candle, with only tiny sparks from the flint and steel. Then the Paschal Light is shared with each person, and we follow it into this dark sanctuary, gradually banishing that darkness one candle at a time, growing the light as we come together and hear the ancient chant proclaiming Christ’s radiant salvation;

…Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.

Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,
and let your holy courts, in radiant light,
resound with the praises of your people.

BCP, pg 286

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

As a pinch of salt improves the whole batch of Communion Bread, you are salt which transforms what you enter into and give yourself to, and that wholeness transforms us as well. We give a single lit candle to each child we baptize symbolizing that they too are Christ’s light in the world. They are each of them unique, remarkable —and no longer known only as individuals. We are members of the body of Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever, we are part of the family and household of God.

We each have gifts of beautiful saltiness and unique light-bearing, and together as one body we are so powerfully radiant as to be divine. Salt and Light are gifts of the present moment as Jesus speaks of them, and at the same time he is pointing ahead to how such a present and precious gift continues on beyond this moment and beyond ourselves.

Mary Oliver wrote about days of growing darkness and the light to resume. She said we must know,

how the vivacity of what was
is married
to the vitality of what will be…

The salt, the light, of Jesus’ presence with them that day, his presence is with us this day, intimately related to the vitality of what is to come, for each of us and for all of us together. Together, you are the vivacious salt of the bread and the soup pot feeding those who come after, you are the light of the world so people can find their way, to see and know God’s love, to experience the vitality of what will be.

Every year we have been witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out
to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do
if the love one claims to have for the world be true?
So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,
though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings, Penguin Books, 2012.

1 Koyun, O. G. A., et al., Traditional beliefs and practices of women regarding pregnancy, childbirth and newborn care. Journal of Social Policy Studies, vol. 22, (2010).
2 Information on salt in the Roman world is drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982.
3 See “Salt” in The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour. Cited by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE, in You, the Salt of the Earth, November 10, 2018

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Feb. 5, 2025.