Citizenship In Heaven
Probably every American has read Edward Everett Hale’s famous short story “The Man Without A Country”. It is pure fiction, but it has a touching realism. Here is the tale in summary, in case you have forgotten the details.
In 1805 Aaron Burr, a former U.S. Vice-President was reported to be plotting to steal the American Southwest and set himself up as its king. The federal government tried him for treason, but the case against him was not proved.
Meanwhile, however, according to Hale’s story, Burr won over several followers. Among them an enthusiastic young naval lieutenant, Philip Nolan. He was one of the lesser conspirators put on trial. Because of his youth, the judge of the court martial was ready to let him off. He asked Nolan if he wished to say anything to show that he had always been loyal to the United States. To the shock of all present, Nolan cursed his country. “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”
After that, the presiding officer could not release Nolan. Instead, he sentenced him to have his wish. Stripped of naval status and rank, he was ordered to be put on one navy vessel after another, and never be allowed to land on American soil. All personnel aboard the ships were cautioned never to mention the U.S.A. in his presence or to allow him to read anything about his homeland. The order was carried out almost perfectly. Philip Nolan spent from 1807 to 1863 as a “man without a country”. It was an excessive penalty, but he bore it heroically and came to realize gradually the meaning of patriotism.
To be a citizen of some country is very important. Important practically, for it means that some government will protect us. Important psychologically because it is frightful to belong nowhere. A non-citizen is something like an astronaut whose “umbilical cord” is severed during a space walk, and who then becomes a lonely satellite whirling through space.
But if earthly citizenship is necessary, heavenly citizenship is even more so. We must also be able to say with St. Paul “We have our citizenship in heaven” (Phil 3:20, today’s second reading). One day we will stand at the gate of a border marked “Kingdom of Heaven.” When the guard asks “Citizenship?” we had better have our passports in order.
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q413: Is the depiction today of the apostles’ struggle to stay awake really a picture of every Christian’s journey?
Have you ever noticed how the three apostles (Peter, James and John) are always falling asleep on Jesus at critical moments in his journey to the cross? In today’s gospel (Luke 9:28-36) Jesus reveals his divinity during the Transfiguration, surely a “mountaintop experience” to top them all! But “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep…” Later on in another crucial moment near the end of Jesus’ journey at the Garden of Gethsemane, despite Jesus’ request to “keep awake,” Peter, James and John fall asleep during his hour of need (Mark 14:33-34, 37). During the Transfiguration when his glory was manifested, the three apostles woke up and heard a voice, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him!” Before they realized it, the “mountaintop experience” was over.
In both cases, Jesus was engaged in deep prayer. In both cases, the apostles could not stay awake in prayer support. But once they realized what was happening at the Transfiguration, they wanted to stay there and continue the experience. St. Augustine taught us that instead Jesus took them back down the mountain, and showed them how to serve even through persecution – the Way to heaven lies through the Way of the Cross (CCC #556).
I think we need to remember the stark contrast between last week’s gospel and today’s. In the story of the “Temptations” last week, we were reminded of the full humanity of Jesus. In the story of the “Transfiguration” today, we are reminded of the full divinity of Jesus. The latter reminds us of our promised eternal destiny when we respond to Jesus message of love. The former reminds us that this destiny doesn’t mean we can avoid the trials and pains of life.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! In both the Transfiguration and the Gethsemane experiences, it is clear that the events are pointing to the Cross ahead, the way of suffering (CCC #555). Is it possible that we “miss” mountaintop experiences because we are not open to accepting the way of the cross that might be in our present or future? Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, “Not my will but thine be done.”
Q569: Is there a connection between Abraham and Jesus in the readings today?
The readings today are quite revealing. First, Abraham is transformed from a desert nomad into the father of a great nation, because of his faithful listening (Gen. 15:5-18). Then Jesus is transfigured from what his disciples thought was merely an itinerant preacher into the Savior of the world (Luke 9:28-36).
It has been said (S. DeGidio, OSM) that transfiguration happens when some inner quality or hidden potential of a person comes to light. Each one of us has a special quality and hidden potential, as a baptized Christian. We are called to use actively that special relationship that we have with the Christ who now dwells within us. It must not lie dormant, because the Lord has given each one of us a mission to spread the good news of his love and his redemption, and to invite others into his kingdom.
It is in the reception of Holy Eucharist that we are enabled to become transformed into His image, to become fully human as he wants us to be. As Jesus teaches us, we have no life within us if we do not eat the Bread of Life, the medicine of immortality (John 6; CCC #2837).
It is important to realize the context of our gospel story. Jesus was at prayer. During this prayer his transfiguration took place, and a divine voice tells the disciples—and us—to listen to this chosen, prayerful Son. In other words, we do not stop with our reflection upon the transfiguration. We need to take the next step and actively live the life of a true disciple, pondering the teachings of Jesus and actively living the Christ-life in our world.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! As with Abraham and Jesus, prayerful listening is our own ‘mountain’ into the divine presence. Jesus always prays before the decisive moments and events in his life and mission, as well as before decisive moments involving his disciples. Can we imitate his trusting and humble commitment to his Father’s will (CCC #2600)?
The Best Is Yet to Come
God promised the childless and landless Abraham a host of descendants and possession of the land of Canaan. Abraham trusts in the Lord to keep his promise even though he does not understand how it will happen. St. Paul tells us that by baptism we have become citizens of heaven even though we live as expatriates here. When the Lord comes again he will transform our mortal bodies into glorified bodies and complete the work begun in his death and resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel the account of the Transfiguration comes right after Jesus first tells the disciples that he must suffer and die and that his disciples also will have to take up the cross. Then there is the Transfiguration, the preview of the glory that awaits Jesus and his disciples when they have passed over through death to eternal life.
Almighty God, we ask you that throughout this season of Lent we follow in our lives the suffering, death and resurrection of your Son Jesus, and so come to share in his glory. Support us when we falter; lift us when we fall; teach us to embrace the cross, so that we may rise with Jesus in glory when he comes again.