Although Adam and Eve, along with Noah and his family and the revelers at Babul, are lost to history, the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah have some historical credibility. The migration of Abraham’s family from Mesopotamia to Canaan was part of a general movement in Asia Minor dating from sometime in the first half of the second millennium before Christ. While there is no physical evidence of Abraham’s trek, his ancestral story has affinities to other late second-millennium stories and the names Abraham and Sarah fit language patterns of that era. Biblical scholars tend to acknowledge that the patriarch Abraham, the ancestor of Israel, was an actual historical person.
Abraham is rightly known today as the father of believers. And well he might be! Today, over four billion people look back to Abraham as the first historical man to place faith in our Father God. Catholics, Orthodox Protestants, Jews and Muslims all follow the lead of Abraham in embracing God the Father as the spiritual foundation of their lives. But since Abraham is the father of believers, the question must be asked, “In exactly what did Abraham believe?” Clearly there had been no revelation regarding the Holy Trinity. Belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was centuries off. There were no formulated Ten Commandments. The Bible would not be completed until well after Jesus Christ. The Christian sacraments were far in the distance and even Jewish feast days had not started to evolve. The absolute God of Islam would be very late in coming. So when Abraham made an act of faith in God and God credited that act of faith as righteousness for Abraham, exactly what was happening?
In the second reading for this fourth Sunday of Advent, St. Paul writes to the Romans about “the obedience of faith.” This very phrase, by the way, is the motto of Providence native Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester. Abraham’s faith was not an intellectual assent to dogmas, doctrines and definitions that characterizes much religion in the present day. Abraham’s faith was clearly obedience to God’s rather bewildering plan about migrating from Iraq to Israel, claiming land between Lebanon and Egypt, bearing a child with his wife Sarah in their old age, and producing offspring as numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars of the sky. Abraham had no Bible to consult, no Papal documents offering guidance, no litany of saints whose example he could follow, no oracles from the prophets or revelations from the Apostles. Abraham simply had to take God at his word. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, a childless and landless migrant would become the father of many nations. Happily for succeeding generations, Abraham obeyed. Abraham’s faith was a blatant act of submission to the plan of God, more an act of the will than an assent of the mind. St. Paul certainly had faith as obedience in mind when he wrote, again to the Romans, “One believes with the heart and so is justified.”
Biblical schooling, Church teachings, eloquent sermons, learned writings, personal tutoring and many other valuable forms of Christian instruction can broaden one’s faith, support one’s faith and direct one’s faith. But faith is more than content. Sometimes the well-educated are the least faithful. Faith, as Cardinal Newman wrote, is “the knowledge of the heart.” Faith is primarily an act of obedience, an act of compliance, even an act of surrender.
The Blessed Virgin Mary certainly had more religious resources at her disposal than Abraham did. She was after all a good Jew. Yet again, Mary’s “Let it done unto me according to thy Word,” was undoubtedly an act of submission. She had no time to sort out the meaning of the Incarnation. Hers was the obedience of faith. St. Francis of Assisi was raised in a thoroughly Roman Catholic culture. While he might have been a rascal as a young man, the truths of the faith were not unknown to him. Yet, it was personal obedience toward Christ who challenged him to “build up my Church for it is falling apart,” that radically altered his life and lifestyle. St. Theresa of Lisieux, within her Carmelite convent, seriously thought about becoming a foreign missionary, a task the Church in France was rapidly embracing. But again, this young nun committed herself to the cloister, sensing God’s Will superior to her own inclinations. Faith, prompted by love, is always obedient to God’s truth, both as revealed in the Church and as revealed in one’s heart. The obedience of faith is at the heart of all belief.