A little while ago I was going through some old papers and came across a copy of my Grandmother’s naturalization papers. My Grandmother came to the US in about 1904 from what was then the Austria Hungarian Empire. On the certificate, below her scrawled signature (she never learned to read or write) was the order that she was citizen of the United States with the corresponding rights and protection.
I was reminded of that certificate when I was sitting with the scripture readings for this week and came to St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As we just heard, Paul wrote: “Brothers and sisters: Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We became citizens of heaven at our baptism. Heaven is our real home. Here on earth we are pilgrims, sojourners. The scriptures and sacred traditions are our guidebook; the sacraments prepare us for our heavenly homeland.
In the story of the transfiguration which we heard from the Gospel of Luke we get a glimpse of what that homeland may be like. Jesus leads Peter, John and James up a mountain. While Jesus prays, his chosen disciples are overcome with sleep; then they awake to what must have been a life changing scene. For a few moments Peter, James and John gaze upon the dazzling face of Jesus, the very face of God, appearing in his glory. With Jesus were two fellow citizens of heaven- Elijah and Moses, conversing with Jesus face to face. With the overshadowing by the cloud representing the spirit and the voice of the Father the three apostles were in the midst of the Trinity.
It was only a glimpse, over in moments; they saw perhaps all that a mortal may see and live. Was it a dream, a vision? It seems clear from the scripture that this was a very real event, a breaking forth into our world of the glory of heaven. Its passing must have left the three apostles with such longing, a homesickness for their heavenly homeland, a yearning and a hunger for that realm of beauty and light, of perfection. The memory gave them courage and strength to withstand the trials to come.
Do you feel it too, that yearning? A hunger for our real home, the home promised to us, when we will be with God and gaze on his perfection for all time? Homesickness for a place we have never seen, only felt- the goal of our earthly pilgrimage, the fulfillment of all our desires? Desiring not the things of this world but the glory of the next.
Like Peter, John and James we also, in our lives, might be granted a glimpse, by God’s grace, a glimpse of home, like Moses standing on the mountaintop gazing at the Promised Land. We might get a glimpse in the laughter of a child, the bond of human love, the beauty of the liturgy. In the Mass we are transported to heaven, and in adoration we dwell in the presence of the Lord. We feast on the Eucharist, truly bread from heaven, which gives us strength and courage for our journey.
Our homeland, the realm of heaven, is a place of light, in which we, like Peter, James and John, will be fully awakened. This is the new covenant Jesus came to pledge. Not for us the deep and terrifying darkness that overcame Abram in our first reading from Genesis. Not for us the deep trance. That was before Jesus entered our world, before his sacrifice of love. Instead of terrifying darkness Jesus promises us dazzling whiteness, in place of a trance we are offered full awareness.
How then shall we live, you and I, on earth as citizens of heaven?
First of all we live in prayer. While Jesus was on the earth he prayed, and taught us to pray to our Father who art in heaven. Prayer is a dialogue with God, as welcome and refreshing as a call home when we are far away. We pray for ourselves, for others, for the Church. Those who have gone before us, already in heaven, pray for us still on earth. We pray and we work to bring the reign and rule of heaven here and now by the power of Jesus Christ.
How then shall we live? The priorities of an earthly citizen are earthly, concerned with only the temporary things of this world, but the priorities of a heavenly citizen should be heavenly, concerned primarily with things of eternal value. In this life strive to be illuminated by the brilliant light of the transfiguration; be encouraged in love. As a citizen of heaven anticipate in this world the unfading glory and beauty of the next.
Citizens of heaven live in eager anticipation of the return of our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful and unfailing reflection and meditation on Christ’s coming gives us joy even amidst the trials and attacks of life on earth. As citizens of heaven we pray and yearn for the day when Jesus will return to change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.
Brothers and sisters, our citizenship in heaven benefits us far more than did my Grandmother’s naturalization papers did her, as significant as they are. Our true homeland is eternal and infinitely glorious, exceeding what the human mind or heart can ever imagine. Peter, John and James were granted a foretaste of that glory at the transfiguration. It was a preview of the glory we all hope to share in. At all times, but especially in this Lent, we purify our heart of this world’s thoughts and attachments and prepare for the glory of the next.