“The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord.” ― Augustine of Hippo, City of God
“I want to be the best in the World. I want to win gold. This is more than just some piece of medal. It’s about what the medal represents. The virtues it requires to attain it.”-Mark Schultz, Olympic Gold Medal Wrestler, as portrayed in the film FOXCATCHER
“I want more than anything to win a gold medal.” –John du Pont, as portrayed in the film FOXCATCHER
“For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14 NRSV
There are two cities we can live for; the city of God or the city of men. Jesus came to bring the reality of the eternal city of heaven among us. From the start, this heavenly city is one that is often opposed by the earthly cities. Concerning Christ, we are well aware that the manger in the city of Bethlehem lead to a cross on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem.
The City…That Never Lasts
The preview above is a movie that is based on true events. It also offers a good expression of the earthly city and where it takes us. The earthly city promises us glories for our future. But we are not asked to wonder whether that future lasts. It offers us hopes and dreams, but these are but for a fleeting moment. Once again, St. Augustine helps us understand this:
“The earthly [city] has made for herself, according to her heart’s desire, false gods out of any sources at all, even out of human beings, that she might adore them with sacrifices. The heavenly one, on the other hand, living like a wayfarer in this world, makes no false gods for herself. On the contrary, she herself is made by the true God that she may be herself a true sacrifice to Him.”― Augustine of Hippo, City of God
When we speak of these cities, both heavenly and earthly, our concern is not so much about vicinity, but destiny. After all, Christians are not Gnostic; we don’t despise the material world or blame creation for the evils in it. This is important to remember because when we hear the words heavenly and earthly we may be tempted to connect those with immaterial and material. Maybe a better way to approach the idea of these cities is by using more explicit titles, such as: “the eternal Kingdom of Jesus Christ” and “the kingdom of sin, death and the devil.” That is definitely more clunky and harder to remember. Maybe a short video can better express this contrast. This video is put together by a couple of sharp evangelical Christians who are great at sharing the big picture concerning God’s Word:
If you want a simple way to move away from the habit of thinking of earth and heaven in the unhelpful ways mentioned, just think of the prayer that Jesus taught us: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven…” Matthew 6:9-10 (emphasis mine) If you notice right there in the prayer we see that the aim is for the kingdom of God to become a reality here in this place we call earth.
The movie FOXCATCHER shows us the destiny of the kingdom being offered to us each day in all forms of media, education, and culture. It seeks a temporal hope and that is exactly what is received. Thomas Aquinas identifies the earthly pursuits as: power, honor, wealth and pleasure. (some of those words are heard in the movie preview above.) Fr. Barron explains these pursuits during his Catholicism series and why they always fail to fulfill our hopes. This excerpt is titled, “The Key to Joy”:
Augustine again sums up this problem in his great work, City of God: “The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity…” So, if this is the teleology (the end) of the earthly city, where might the heavenly city take us?
The Everlasting City
“O that men would know themselves to be men; and that he that glorieth would glory in the Lord.”― Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions
If the FOXCATCHER film can highlight some of the themes of the earthly city, then a second video I would like to share will highlight the hope of the heavenly city. Interestingly, both of the movies have a sports theme. While the first sets temporal glory, honor, and power in a sporting contest as its ultimate aim, this second video shows what happens when the sporting activity is played for an eternal end…
About seven minutes into the above video, one of the young men featured says, “I play basketball so I can be a seminarian is ultimately what it comes down to. It is going to allow me to stay physically fit. We are soul and body, so I have to take care of that as a gift that God has given me. Basketball is serving a purpose in God’s plan and God’s mission in my life.” Mike M., Seminarian for the Catholic Priesthood.
I believe this offers a most fundamental difference between the two cities. There are a lot of unhappy, discouraged, and unsatisfied people living in the world today. With the above video we were introduced to three men who are choosing to find happiness elsewhere. None of these men are perfect; they would all be happy to remind you of this. They need God’s grace everyday just like each of us. But their choice to live a life in the heavenly city is bearing fruit in their lives and it seems compelling, doesn’t it? There are so many people who express how unhappy they are in their work and life. Maybe it is because they are living in the wrong city. Maybe young men who are choosing to pursue their own ends and dreams are meant for something else; something more real, true, and lovely. Does this above video imply you can only be happy in life if you choose to become a priest? By no means! God has called us to the heavenly city and there are many ways to live in this city. But the first step is choosing to live in it and asking God to reform, renew and convert our desires and our will so we would even want to live in it.
For, the choice to live within the heavenly city in our daily lives is no easy task. One of the highest values offered by the earthly city is instant gratification. The promise of pleasures now and hopes fulfilled today are strong sirens that continuously call out to all of us. The Kingdom of Christ is not offered to us in this same way. It is offered in times when we are willing to become quiet and call out to God in our hearts. The promise of pleasure is not paramount either. Instead, a promise of lasting joy and future hope that goes mostly unseen. We are reminded of this in the biblical book of Hebrews:
“All of these [people] died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16
If we seek to live in the heavenly city, we have a different end. Our everyday life contains a different endeavor. Not wealth, power, pleasure or honor. Our end, the end for which each human being on this earth was created, is to love. Now, love is an oft misunderstood word. But, we can keep this very simple. Jesus loves us and he loves us by sacrificing his life for us. Love is not self-will or self seeking. It is unequivocally and passionately concerned for the good of another. Augustine gets at this when he says in ‘City of God’, “It is this Good which we are commanded to love with our whole heart, with our whole mind, and with all our strength. It is toward this Good that we should be led by those who love us, and toward this Good we should lead those whom we love.” Everything in the dying city is screaming ‘Take! Get! Win! Succeed!’ while Jesus’ city is all about giving ourselves. If our lives are a gift loved into existence by God, then as gift we are called to give.
Consider a few final passages from Augustine and notice the common thread found in them:
“If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their Maker, so that in the things that please you, you may not displease him.”― Confessions
“God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”― City of God
“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”―Confessions
We were made by God and for God. And God has revealed himself as the very reality of love. So we were made by love itself to live in response to the love he ceaselessly gives to us. It is the only thing that fulfills our deepest hopes and desires. When we seek the dying city and its empty promises, it takes us on a dead end road. The road to the everlasting city is not an easy road. It takes us to the same hill where Christ was raised up on a cross. And Jesus asks us to pick up the same cross he willingly carried. We have this consolation though: when Jesus took the long, difficult road to the cross a passerby named Simon was asked to help him carry the cross of Jesus. Jesus remembers this and the cross we are asked to carry on the road to the heavenly city does not have to be carried alone. Jesus, our Lord and brother, takes the role of Simon in our life and lightens our burden.
There is a beautiful image of a disciple embracing Jesus while Jesus hangs on the cross. But, this image can take on another meaning. It can remind us that Jesus who bore his cross embraces us when we are bearing ours.
One of my favorite movies is ‘Shadowlands’, based on part of the life of C.S. Lewis. It focuses on a period of time when he married his wife Joy. Some of the most profound reflections on love, life and happiness occur toward the end of the movie when his wife Joy dies of cancer. This is an excellent example of the love we find in the heavenly city. The clip below provides a couple key moments from the movie:
“Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” -C.S. Lewis, as portrayed in the film ‘Shadowlands’
Consider the two cities and the life lived so far. What city have you been living for? Ask the Lord Jesus to lead you on the road of self-giving love; the road to the everlasting city.
For those wanting to live in the reality of the heavenly city, a good map of this city is found in Holy Scripture and also in Augustine’s ‘City of God’, which I frequently cited during this post. I leave you with a passage from Scripture; the first letter of the Apostle John. When you have some time, read the entire letter from John and find a copy of ‘City of God’ to read. God bless you and may you seek a life with Jesus on the road of the Everlasting City!!!
1 John 4:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sisterwhom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”