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March 17: The Second Sunday of Lent [C]

First Reading Genesis 15:5-12,17-18
Second Reading Philippians 3:17—4:1
Gospel 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 term, because belonging to a housing community is based upon a contract, and a contract is very different than a covenant.

A contract is based in time, and has limits, and involves an exchange of money, possessions, labor or the like. By contrast, a covenant is based in eternity, is meant to be limitless, and involves an exchange of persons. When you buy your house, you sign a contract. When you marry your spouse, you enter into a covenant. When you were baptized, you yourself entered into a covenant with God, even if you were an infant.

In the First Reading, God enters a covenant with Abram, and through him, also with his progeny who not only were not yet infants, but were centuries from even being conceived. Through this covenant, God and Abram made promises about how they would act towards each other. They entered into a relationship with spiritual and moral dimensions. You can see 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 through God in a sacrament like Marriage, is the giving of one’s whole self: one’s whole life. The life of every saint shows just how much commitment that 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. But 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 could 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. A relationship with God where the Christian constantly speaks becomes empty, because the Christian has drowned out God’s voice.

But this covenant relationship between God and Abram also shows us that prayer, while often a dialogue, is meant to lead into silence. It leads not just to human silence: not just to the quieting of our human voice so as to hear God’s. The trance that Abram enters represents the deepest stage of prayer: what in our Catholic tradition is called mystical prayer. This deepest level of prayer is not just for lofty saints like Saint Teresa of Avila.

This deepest level of prayer is the goal of prayer for every Christian, as the Council Fathers at Vatican II said. This deepest stage of prayer is what Heaven is. That is to say, 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 is whether you will experience it only in Heaven, or even on earth grasp some glimpse of it in your prayer.

The difficulty is that to be disposed to deeper and deeper levels of prayer, we have to root more deeply out of our souls the selfishness that lies underneath the surface of our lives. So you can see at this point that the Christian life is like the chicken and the egg: the relationship between our moral life and our spiritual life is complex. Each builds upon the other, and the sins in the one area make it easier to commit sins in the other.

Maybe 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 make, and Christ is our guide, if we would only hear and heed Him.