The Second Sunday of Lent [C]
Genesis 15:5-12,17-18 + Philippians 3:17—4:1 + Luke 9:28-36
But our citizenship is in heaven ….
In this Sunday’s First Reading from Genesis, we hear about God’s relationship with Abram, whom God renames “Abraham” a few chapters later. In the snapshot of their relationship presented by the First Reading, we see the kernels of a life of prayer.
If you were to choose a single word out of the First Reading to summarize this snapshot, it would be the word “covenant”. In our society, about the only place you hear of a “covenant” is in a housing edition that calls itself a “covenant community”. This is a mis-use of the word “covenant”, because belonging to a housing community is based upon a contract.
A contract is based in time, has limits, and involves an exchange of money, possessions, and labor or the like. By contrast, a covenant is based in eternity, is meant to be limitless, and involves an exchange of persons. When one buys a house, one signs a contract. When one marries one’s spouse, one enters into a covenant. When one is baptized, one enters into a covenant with God, even if one is an infant.
In the First Reading, God enters a covenant with Abram, and through him, also with his progeny. Through this covenant, God and Abram make promises about how they would act towards each other. They enter into a relationship with spiritual and moral dimensions.
You can see here the similarity between the marriage covenant and a biblical covenant like that between God and Abram. In a covenant, each party agrees not only to be moral in behavior towards the other, but even to sacrifice oneself for the other.
Entering into a covenant with God, or with another person in a sacrament like Marriage, is the giving of one’s whole self: one’s whole life. Each saint’s life demonstrates just how much effort this takes. That’s why prayer is so needed, and in this we have an example of God’s generosity. Not only does He enter into a covenant with us in our Baptism, so that we might possibly enjoy His life eternally in Heaven. God gives us the strength through prayer and the sacraments to live up to our end of the deal.
What can we say about prayer, then, as it helps us grow stronger in our covenant relationship with God? You might describe prayer as “communication” with God. Real communication, whether in marriage or in one’s relationship with God, involves both listening and speaking. A marriage where only one spouse speaks—where’s there’s no dialogue, but only monologues—will not grow to its intended fullness.
But this covenant relationship between God and Abram also shows us that prayer, while often a dialogue, is meant to lead into something profound. The trance that Abram enters in the First Reading symbolizes the deepest stage of prayer: what in our Catholic tradition is called mystical prayer. This deepest stage of prayer is not just for gifted Christians like St. Teresa of Avila.
This deepest level of prayer is the goal of prayer for every Christian, as the Council Fathers at Vatican II said. If you and I reach Heaven, this is what we will experience there: a mystical relationship with God.
The question isn’t whether you are meant for this. The question isn’t even only whether you will experience it in Heaven. The spiritual life also asks whether even on earth you might grasp some glimpse of this experience in prayer while on earth. A good resource to help Christians grow in this pursuit is Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen’s book Union with God according to St. John of the Cross (Sophia Institute Press).
The difficulty is that to be disposed to deeper levels of prayer, we have to root out of our souls the selfishness that lies underneath the surface of our lives. So the Christian life is like the chicken and the egg: the relationship between our moral life and spiritual life is complex. Each builds upon the other.
To take one simple step forward this Lent, in either our moral life or our spiritual life, we should keep in mind the simple phrase of Saint Paul in today’s Second Reading: “our citizenship is in Heaven.” God has created you for Heaven, not for earth. Like Jesus at the Transfiguration, we cannot remain here and rest. We have an exodus to make, a pilgrimage to set out upon, and Christ is our guide if we would only hear and heed Him.