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We are citizens of heaven, say the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent Year A, and we start living with God right now — the God who charges all creation with his grandeur, and gives us his Church as our guide and his mother as our queen. But we can put ourselves outside his covenant, to our peril.
Sunday’s Gospel is Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, and Luke alone shares two details of the story that are crucial.
The Transfiguration, told in all three Synoptic Gospels, takes place right after Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah and that he “must suffer greatly, and be rejected … and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus chose three leaders, Peter, James and John, to be encouraged by the Transfiguration just before his passion. The Church gives us the reading at the start of Lent to encourage us, too.
Many have speculated over the years as to why Jesus chose the three people he chose to witness the Transfiguration. I like the explanation St. Ambrose gives. These three had “undefiled purity of faith” he said:
“Peter, who received the keys of the kingdom, John, to whom his mother was entrusted, and James, who was the first to mount a bishop’s throne, ascended.”
Luke describes the scene, and then he alone tells us what Jesus was talking about with the two heavenly visitors who appeared. “While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothes became dazzling white,” Luke reports. “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”
Moses, whose grave was never found, and Elijah, who ascended into heaven in a chariot, are clearly citizens of heaven — that place outside of time where God lives surrounded by his angels. From there, they see all of history at once, from the creation of the earth to the Second Coming. So they can chat as easily about “the future” as they can about “the past” — it is all one to them.
That is what makes sense of the second thing that only Luke mentions: The Apostles’ sleep.
“Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory, and the two men standing with him,” Luke reports. The reality of heaven overwhelms their senses, as it does for Abraham in the First Reading, but they are given the privilege of becoming fully awake for a vision of the eternity that is present at all times.
It’s a vision of the true grandeur of God, a consequence of what Catholics believe about God but so many people misunderstand. We do not believe that God is a figure from the world’s past, a heavenly being who created the world, watches from on high, intervenes occasionally, and will one day call it to reckoning.
God is not another being among many; he is entirely other, apart from space and time but at the same time creator and sustainer of all we see. Everything is “now” to God in eternity. He is saying “Let there be light!” right now, over the primordial chaos at the dawn of creation, over the Annunciation, over the Crucifixion and Resurrection, over the Early Church, and over the Church and every human being this year and every year until the end of time.
That means he is right now guiding the basket of Moses in the reeds, he is right now responding to Elijah on Mount Horeb, he is right now giving Peter the keys, and empowering St. James and your bishop with authority.
The whole Trinity is represented in the Transfiguration in the Gospel for Sunday: the Father is there by his voice, the Spirit in the cloud, and Jesus, aglow, is the center of attention. John saw it all, and by living with Mary after the crucifixion, John would discovered how intimately involved in our lives the Trinity is. The Spirit in eternity is hovering over the waters, choosing Moses, Elijah, Peter and James, and conceiving Jesus Christ in Mary as the power of the most high overshadows her. In the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12, John would give us his vision of how this interplay between time and eternity works. He would see how the incarnation looks in heaven and how it sparked a great battle with Satan, a battle in eternity that continues within time, in Ukraine, right now.
Every bit as much as he did for Peter, James and John at the transfiguration, he Father is entering our time perspective right now and pointing to his son, thundering from heaven: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” The First Reading makes clear just how closely we should listen.
God is also, right now in eternity, making a covenant with Abraham.
His name was Abram still in today’s First Reading when God promised him a land of his own, and ratified the promise with a vision reminiscent of the Transfiguration. The strange tale of the animal carcasses, torch and urn only makes sense if you know how covenants were made in the ancient world. This covenant suggests participants cutting animals in half and passing between the two halves, thereby promising, “Let this happen to me if I violate my covenant.”
Like Peter, James and John, Abram experiences a deep sleep, then sees a pot and torch pass, like the bright cloud of the Transfiguration, between the pieces. In so doing, God himself — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is promising that he will keep his end of the bargain.
This covenant turns out differently from human covenants: Abraham gets what God promises, but he is unfaithful to his end right away. The very next thing that happens in Genesis is Abraham fathering a child from a woman other than his wife. God knew all along that Abraham would sin, so God kept Abraham’s bargain for him, by becoming a descendant of Abraham to rescue humanity — incarnate as Jesus Christ, offering himself to be sacrificed like an animal to restore the covenant.
Then Jesus rises from the dead to the right hand of the Father, incorporates us into his life through the Holy Spirit and we, Abraham’s descendants, receive the promised land — the land inhabited by Moses, Elijah, Mary, and Jesus himself right now: heaven.
St. Paul sees the full implications of this when he says that, even now, we are citizens of heaven.
Right before today’s Gospel passage in Luke, Jesus says something that skeptics like to point to in order to prove Jesus is fallible: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
The very next line is “About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John and James and went up the mountain.” They did not taste death before they saw what they were meant to be: citizens of the Kingdom.
The Second Reading says this outright: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul even says that we will be illuminated in the way Jesus is at the Transfiguration: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.”
Paul is describing citizenship in heaven to Christians in Philippi, a rare Roman colony in the Greek Isles, where the people would have known all about what it means to be a privileged Roman citizen surrounded by those who were not.
To see what it means to be a citizen of heaven, read this Sunday’s Psalm, Psalm 27. Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator was a Roman statesman and Christian who lived at the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries. He said of Psalm 27: “The whole of this text is to be applied to the theme of the Perfect Christian … winning praise for his merits and consoling himself with God’s kindnesses.”
But St. Paul also warns that we can lose our citizenship.
The long version of the Second Reading warns that “Many … conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’ Their minds are occupied with earthly things.”
In Lent, we can’t help but notice that these three things correspond with our Lenten discipline: To keep from making your belly your god, you have to fast; to glory in God instead of your “shame” you have to pray; to keep earthly things from capturing your mind, you have to give them away.
St. Paul’s reading Sunday begins with words that sound prideful to us: Be “imitators of me,” he says. But if it sounds terrible that St. Paul says that, think of how much more terrible it is that you and I can’t say that. We should be able to tell anyone who wants to know what the Christian life is, “Just watch me and you’ll see.”
If we can’t say “be imitators of me,” we aren’t living as citizens of heaven right now. And if we aren’t living as citizens of heaven right now, we are out of touch with the God who, right now, is dying, is rising from the dead, is transfigured and transfiguring his saints. And that makes us “enemies of the cross of Christ,” says St. Paul.
How to get from where we are to our own “transfiguration”?
To ascend with them, therefore, stay close to the Peters, James and Johns of our day: the Pope, your bishop, and the Blessed Mother, through consecration to her, in imitation of St. John. All three are important, and require us to acquire humility, obedience and love through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Have the humility to accept the magisterium, the obedience to follow your local bishop and the supernatural love that keeps Mary close until we, too, are transfigured by Christ in eternity.