Grace to you!
A fair portion of the success of evangelization in the southeast of Nigeria was the sacrifice of missionaries from Ireland and France. They came to Onitsha, across and beyond the River Niger in the second half of the 19th century. To be precise, the French Catholic priest Fr. Lutz led the team in 1885. They saw the needs of the people. They noticed they couldn’t read or write. They knew that the inability to read or write wouldn’t equip the natives for the future. So, they focused on education. They believed that with education, the native people could have better opportunities.
Next, they saw the health condition of the citizens. They invested in providing basic health care. They set up clinics and later hospitals. They started to fight poverty. They knew in their bones that if one has not satisfied the basic necessities of life, it could be a hindrance to the joyful experience of the gospel. The missionaries invested in programs that would make food and clean water more available to those who were poor. They offered so much.
Meanwhile, some other missionaries were carrying their Bible and preaching the fast. They quoted various verses of Scripture but offered little, if any, concrete charitable services to the community. Why preach fast to a people whose lives were routine fasting? Why preach abstinence from fat and meat and dietary needs to a people who have no meat at all to eat? This strategy failed woefully in eastern Nigeria. It fails everywhere.
On the other hand, the delegation of Fr. Lutz and others who followed in his footsteps was very successful. The result was infectious. Despite the challenges, the natives realized that this crop of missionaries wasn't like the rest. They saw they hadn’t come to take but to give. They saw, they prayed like never before, and got their feet wet too in serving the poor in the community. The outpouring of their hearts to the natives was palpable. It wasn't long before large numbers of people started to congregate in the corners of the church huts. Then, they began to learn the Bible and the Catechism. The result was the fast growth of the Church in eastern Nigeria. One hundred thirty-five years later, millions profess the one true faith.
To be sure, the Church in eastern Nigeria isn’t perfect. No particular Church is. But the growth of the faith is mind-blowing.
During the early days of Christian life in Onitsha, where I learned Catechism like any other kid, the faith was always tied to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We knew them by heart. It was drilled into us that faith without good works is dead. We were taught to pray and work. Social justice wasn't a new gospel. It was an integral aspect of the gospel. It wasn't social gospel versus praying gospel. It was and is still both. We were taught to profess our faith and lift the burdens of the poor as well. We were taught to spend hours in the adoration chapel and hours serving food and clothing to the poor. It wasn’t the church of the chapel adorers versus the church of the social justice advocates. It was both.
It wasn't anything new. Neither is it something novel. In the Prophecy of Isaiah, the Lord rejects ostentatious piety. It lacks the core ingredients of charity in action. We learn from the Prophecy of Isaiah what true fasting, and by extension, true religion, is. It is to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house. It is also to clothe the naked and not to avoid the needy in our midst. It is also to pour oneself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted (Is 57:7, 10).
The Lord tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt 5:13-16). These are metaphors. Yet, they have a much deeper meaning. As salt, we are what makes things of taste, good. We serve as preservatives to the good things the Creator has bequeathed the world too. Well, these—taste and preservative roles—are the most common understanding of the salt. For the snowy cities, salt could serve the role of defrosting the ice; yet, it may also serve the role of damaging the roads. There are numerous other ways of looking at it. It could speak to that condition in which we are unnoticed and yet make things taste good. It could be becoming that which melts and permeates into the fabric of society with the warmth of our love. Of all food ingredients, salt is about the fastest to dissolve. It dissolves completely. No one sees it, yet it impacts everything else in the soup.
It is so with anyone born anew in Christ. We become that unassuming and unnoticed ingredient that holds the world in good taste. In our prayer and our social justice works, we carry the heart of true love and hands of pure love. We pour ourselves. We daily die so those around us may live well. None pretentious self-emptying is part of who we are as believers.
Such is light too. Natural light is everywhere but seems nowhere. Except for artificial lights or bulbs, you notice that nobody points to it, yet it is everywhere. Sometimes, people don't notice, but the impact is everywhere. Have you ever walked out on a bright day and paid attention to the sun? You walk in the light. It shines. It permeates. You enjoy its rays while it goes unannounced. So is the life of a true believer.
How is this possible? It is when our religious devotions are grounded in sensitivity to the ethical demands and needs around us. It is when we don't just say things, we do them. It is when we realized that one life, we positively impact is worth much more than all the prayers and fasting, that we load up. It is when we shine because Christ lives in us. And like Christ, we live and move and shine. It isn't merely our devotions and prayers that shine. It is everything we do, even our constant commitment to serve and give to charity.
Faith without good work is simply dead (Jas 2:17). As the Jewish Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane (2002) notes, "Ritual must be grounded in moral sensibility and action” (Haftarot, p. 393).
I am praying for the grace to pour ourselves out for the good of those around us, for it is in dying that we find life.
God love you. God bless you.
[5th Sunday A: Is 58:7-10; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16. Image source. Cathopic.com]
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on Scriptural readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.