Citizens of Heaven

Citizens of Heaven

Second Sunday of Lent. Fr David Goodill preaches on the needs of the exile.

My habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire. All said that I was wicked and perhaps I might be so: what thought had I been but just conceiving of starving myself to death? That certainly was a crime: and was I fit to die?

Life is cruel for Jane Eyre, an orphaned child living with her unloving auntie and capricious cousins. Her cousin John Reed physically abuses her, her auntie despises her, and her two female cousins ignore her. A harsh life for any ten-year-old child.

Yet, the beatings and the cruelty are not the root of Jane’s dark mood. Her mind is in turmoil because she is an alien in her auntie’s house, a child with no sense of belonging, nothing to call her own, no one to love:

I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there: I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage. If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them.

The young Jane is to find her place of belonging at Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls who have lost one or both of their parents. It is not the institution itself to which Jane becomes attached; indeed at first it is an abusive and cruel regime. Jane’s belonging comes through her relationship to two people, Helen Burns, an older girl who will die of consumption, and Miss Temple, a young teacher who is greatly admired and respected by her pupils.

For the first time in her life Jane is accepted and loved for who she is, and for the first time she has friends who she can accept and love. She is an alien in her auntie’s house because she has no one to learn from, no one to imitate. Helen Burns teaches Jane how to face suffering with courage, and in the midst of affliction to place her trust in God: [quote]I believe: I have faith; I am going to God.

Miss Temple is a model of virtue, prudent, courageous, just and loving. For the first time Jane knows who she wants to be as she grows older.

In this Sunday’s second reading St Paul tells the Philippians:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.’

The way that we learn to be Christians is by imitating those who imitate Christ. Earlier in the letter Paul has urged the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Like the young Jane Eyre we are all aliens. Our lives may not be as desperate as Jane’s, and we may be fortunate to experience belonging through the love of family and friends. Yet deep in all our hearts there is a discord that results from sin, separating us from each other and from communion with God.

Christ Jesus, when he took the form of a slave, came to share in our discord. Indeed, not only did he share our state of exile, but he

humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jane learns from Helen Burns what it is to face suffering with dignity and courage, and she learns from Miss Temple how to live a virtuous and loving life. Through his cross Jesus Christ faces the extremes of human loneliness and exile, and yet from this seemingly most hopeless of places he teaches us how to live lives that overcome all division and discord.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in society today is in finding good role models. Many of our children are growing up in discord and depression because they have no one to teach them how to grow to maturity.

Sometimes we despair, yet as Christians we are given the assurance that Jesus Christ has overcome the depths of our disharmony. So we must have confidence that if we imitate those who imitate Christ, others will come to imitate us, and no longer live as aliens on this earth but as citizens of heaven.

Readings: Gen 15:5-12,17-18 | Phil 3:17-4:1 | Luke 9:28-36

fr. David Goodill OP is Provincial Bursar of the English Dominicans, and teaches moral theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.