In the Gospel of Luke we read:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . . And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26–31, 38)
This is the mystery of the Annunciation, when a young woman’s assent of faith ushered in the greatest event in human history: the Incarnation — God taking flesh — so as to save us from sin and invite us to the richness of God’s love. From this mystery, we can see another account of the journey of faith. As Abraham was the male prototype of faith, Mary is regarded as the female prototype of faith because she said the yes by which God became man.
The Acceptance of the Person of God
Christian faith is primarily about accepting the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This reality enables us to relate to God as a person — a being with whom we can enter into a relationship. Moreover, Christian faith is about a relationship with all three persons in one God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — and the way to this relationship is modeled after Christ, the Son, who is fully divine and fully human. Our faith is not a belief in some special force, energy, or vague cosmic power. Christian faith, rather, acknowledges that there is life beyond the forces of nature and that “oneness” with the forces of nature is not and cannot be the goal of our religious aspirations.
Christian faith believes in real persons who transcend space and time: the Person of Jesus, God the Son, the Person of God the Father, and the Person of the Holy Spirit. Together these three Persons are one personal God, the Trinity who shapes all things and who orders nature. The way to this Trinitarian faith is through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit; hence, Christian faith is Christocentric — centered in Christ as the fullness of God’s revelation.
Mary is the paradigm for complete acceptance of the persons of the Trinitarian God. She would have had no frame of reference for understanding the Trinity, but she was so imbued with God’s grace that she instantly accepted the word of God the Father (the first Person) that she would conceive His Son (the second Person) by the power of the Holy Spirit (the third Person). Her response, “Be it done to me according to your word,” remains a model of Christian faith.
While I was ministering in Nigeria, I found that sometimes people built their faith around me as a spiritual leader to the point that it might have become idolatrous. I have observed similar temptations among many influential pastors and evangelizers all over the world. Making sure the attention goes to God is sometimes a challenge for believers — and especially for leaders. This was one of the challenges Paul faced in Lystra, when the Lyca-onians, seeing the great miracles God did through him, thought of him as Hermes and thought of Barnabas, his companion, as Zeus. They said, “The Gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11).
When the faith of a worshipping community is based on the prowess of the minister, the community’s faith is on the thin ice of human respect, always in danger of collapsing into idolatry. Have we not seen many move from faith to disappointment in a church minister who causes a scandal, then to a loss of confidence in the Church as a whole, and finally to a loss of faith in God? I can’t say it enough: Placing ultimate faith in human beings is idolatrous.
If you find yourself moving from one church to another, ask yourself why. If the reason is the person of the minister, then you must be careful. The Catholic Church wisely teaches that the sacraments act ex opere operato, that is, they are efficacious because of the work of Christ, and do not depend on the holiness of the minister, provided that he does what the Church intends for that sacrament.
Similarly, Christian faith is not, as some modern preachers teach, a self-confident belief in oneself that will allow us to achieve impossible feats. Although a sense of optimism is often experienced by the faithful, true faith is not optimism in what I can do. Rather, faith is optimism in what Jesus Christ has revealed, done, and could do in me and through me on the one hand and, on the other hand, what Jesus did and does in and through His Body, the Church. It is about Jesus, not about me; it is about God’s grace, not about my power. Mary’s phrase “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” expresses and acknowledges this God-based sense of both optimism and resignation.
A Life of Gratitude
Recall from the last chapter the connection between faith and prayer in the life of Abraham. In the life of Mary we see another form of the lived response to faith: a life lived in gratitude to God. Faith in God is the vehicle for gratitude to the Source of our life and existence. The Canticle of Mary, known in the Catholic tradition as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), summarizes this thankful response of faith. A faith-inspired life of gratitude takes a communal turn when the assembly of God unites to celebrate the Eucharist, “the source and summit of ecclesial life.”
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we are grateful (eukharistos) and so we offer thanksgiving (eukharistia) to God for the sacrifice that His Son made once and for all on the Cross for our salvation. Mary followed Jesus along the road to Calvary and was present at the foot of the Cross to witness His last breath that was offered for our salvation. The life of faith is a life of gratitude because the faithful realize that life is a gift, faith in God is a gift, and the fulfillment of our desires is a gift — and all of these gifts come from God. No matter what we face in life, faith helps us to see the good in all things and to be grateful in all things.
The practice of celebrating a special thanksgiving holiday emerges from the idea of gratitude to the Provider. In most churches in Africa, communities celebrate the harvest thanksgiving by replicating the Aramaic/Jewish practice of Deuteronomy 26. They offer to the Lord the fruits of their labor in appreciation for the gifts of life, rain, sunshine, the moon, the stars, and, of course, the harvest. For most churches in Africa the harvest becomes a collective thanksgiving to God and a testimony of the faith of the people. Gratitude that does not recognize the giver of the gift becomes self-congratulations — the springboard of narcissism. Faith, on the other hand, helps us to reach beyond ourselves and to appreciate what we have been given. It heals us from excessive self-centeredness.
The second aspect of thanksgiving is that it diffuses to others, leading them to experience joy. Mary embodies this as well. Her faithful and gracious voice made the baby John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth leap for joy. Her greetings also inspired Elizabeth to shout in praise of God. The faith example of Mary is a catalyst for gratitude and praise in others. The life of faith — and the spirit of gratitude that comes with it — should therefore be an inspiration to others.
This social aspect of faith shows us that our relationship with God is not just private. Instead, faith is an integral part of the Christian life, shaping the way the believer talks, works, and relates with others. If I believe in God, then people should be able to see in me a correlation with the God in whom I believe.
Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). He could have said, “Let the people see your faith and give glory to your father in heaven,” but He did not.
The life of faith is seen by others in the way the believer lives. One of the marks of such a faith-filled life is that it should resonate with joy, peace, gracefulness, gratitude, and service. If the way a Christian lives does not make people glad to be around him, then he isn’t witnessing to Christ. Once a woman told me about her abusive father, who she said was more religious than any man she had ever known. But whenever this man came home from work, everyone in the house became tense. He carried an air of unhappiness all the time. The daughter complained that his presence made her sad and depressed. “I wonder how I will serve the same God that my father serves,” she said to me.
Compare this story with another shared by one of my Nigerian friends who is an entrepreneur. One day he entered a shop owned by a Muslim and, after pricing some goods, found he could not afford them. He politely thanked the shopkeeper and left. The next week, he passed the same shop. The shopkeeper called out to him with great excitement and said, “Friend, come into my shop. I am satisfied if you choose not to buy anything; just come in. The other day you came in here, and your presence brought so much joy, peace, and happiness to me, which I had never witnessed before. Ever since, I am a happy salesman, and this has even affected my returns, which have improved exponentially.” The young man said to him, “Well, I am a man of faith in God and His Christ, and that is likely why my life has so much joy as to impact yours. Thank you for your kind words.” Faith is a catalyst for affecting those around us and society at large.
I had the opportunity to work at a parish in California in 2015. This parish grew from 1,500 registered families to about 8,000 in less than seventeen years. While many churches of all denominations in the United States are losing membership, this church is growing every day. During my first month in the church, I wanted to figure out why it was growing rapidly. One of the major reasons shared by the parishioners is the joy that flows from the pastor and his associates to the people, and vice versa. And the foundation of their joy and hospitality is a spirit of gratitude to God. The sacramental practices of the congregation are very encouraging, and the church is full to capacity for Mass. Their joy, peace, and praise of God are palpable — a sweet nectar to many souls.
A Life of Service
In the life of Mary we also see how faith translates into service. Like Abraham, when Mary believed, she acted. It’s impossible to name a holy man or woman in Scripture or in the history of the Church whose faith was not matched with a life of service. Even hermits and abbots who lived in caves devoted ceaseless hours to prayer for the welfare of the world. Why? Because their faith had become the very core of their existence, so much so that it expressed itself in love and service. Faith at its best is married to love, and the source of all love is God. A deeper life of faith is absorbed in the absolute love of God, and love of neighbor for the sake of God. Prayer and action can always go together and support each other.
Christian faith has the capacity of healing the wounds of separation between people. It pulls down the dividing wall and its antecedent hatred. In the existential, sociological sense, an authentic faith blurs the distinction between ethnic, racial, class, sex, and cultural barriers, for it sees the neighbor as a person created in the image and likeness of God. Since God is the ultimate concern of the faithful, the neighbor is appreciated in terms of his ultimate identity as one of God’s creatures. Christian faith unites and should therefore not divide. Thus, it is a false faith that, instead of promoting love and service of neighbor, engages in acts of violence in the name of religion. Violence in the name of religion negates the very nature of authentic faith, namely, service of God and neighbor.
Total Submission to God’s Will
Faith is a life lived in total submission to God’s will, even when His plans could lead to ridicule and ostracism. Mary was open to the Cross, which always looms over the life of faith. She was a young girl who conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and managed a pregnancy that she, before the Annunciation, never would have thought would be her calling. And yet she lived this difficult, even frightening life with courage and graciousness.
There is a subtlety I want to draw our attention to here that is easy to ignore. What happens when faith demands that we make a choice between two acts that are both morally good but only one, the more challenging between them, is God’s will for us? God asked for Mary’s yes for the consummation of the mystery of the Incarnation. Mary submitted to the will of the Father, whom she loved and worshiped in spite of a personal commitment to virginity, a holy gift, which by human calculation excludes the possibility of childbirth. It reveals how her mind had been always attuned to the will of her Father. Faith in the divine will required Mary to leave her comfort zone as a young girl in Nazareth who evidently was not thinking of being a mother, to become not just any mother, but the mother of the Savior. This, for an average girl, would be a tough pill to swallow. But because she obeyed, “all generations shall call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).
This aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation may appear easy to many. After all, who would not accept the invitation to be the mother of the Savior of the world? But in real life, this is not how matters of faith evolve. Hindsight is a tricky tool, because it blurs the risks and uncertainties that are all too apparent in the present. Just think about how, to this day, an “unplanned pregnancy” is one of the greatest fears of young people. If we were to go back to Nazareth at the time of the Incarnation, we would appreciate that there was nothing easy about accepting this invitation simply on the word of an angel called Gabriel. But Mary said yes, because her lifelong experience with God was defined by “yes.” Yes to the will of God. Yes to God’s plan.
In the here and now, sometimes what the Church asks of us may not be very comfortable for us. Sometimes the Faith may require us to be silent when we would have loved to sing aloud and dance to God. Other times, we may desire to become a priest or a religious, but by listening to the voice of God, we see that our vocation is to married life instead. Or it could be the other way around. What may be comfortable might not be the will of God. This is the scary part — the will of God is not always pleasant by our human reckoning. In fact, its constant companion is the Cross. The further you are from the Cross, the more likely you are making the wrong choice. Mary’s yes drew the Holy Family closer to the Cross, for without the Annunciation and the Incarnation, there would not have been the Crucifixion.
Sometimes our faith in God challenges us to turn our cheek to an enemy. Sometimes it requires us to forgive the person who has committed the most painful sins against those closest to us. The Faith requires us not to take up arms in revenge against a terrorist who has killed our relatives in cold blood at a church service in Kenya, Southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, or Uganda — or in the United States. Self-defense is different from vengeance; true faith resists vengeance. Yes, it’s often difficult not to pay back violent acts against us. Faith often takes its holy toll upon us, but it requires the constant yes to God’s will, not our desires, to live the faith we profess and to grow in that divine relationship with Him.
It takes faith in God to bring about things that never could have been. Faith helps us to connect the dots between the natural and the supernatural. It is by faith that we understand God’s plan in our lives and in society and become ready to submit to it.
And Mary, the Mother of God, embodied this complete faith by her life of gratitude and service in total submission to God’s will. She is our example of faith. Let us always strive to respond to God’s will as Mary did: “Be it done to me according to your word.”
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Emelu’s Our Journey to God: An African Priest Explores the Power of Faith from Abraham to You, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.