06 August 2007


Today, August 6, is the day the church celebrates the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus had climbed a mountain with three of his disciples in order to pray when he received a visitation from the great prophets Moses and Elijah. They came to bear witness to and, in their holy conversation, to help prepare Jesus for his final journey to Jerusalem. There Jesus would undergo his passion and death, the greater ministry of which the ministries of Moses and Elijah were only preparations and shadows.

And, in the midst of their meeting, Jesus' humanity suddenly burst to overflowing with the light of the divine presence, shining brightly with the glory of God himself - the eternal Son of God, the image and radiance of the Father, filled with the power of the Spirit. A voice from heaven explained, "This is my beloved Son."

While the church has understood this light as the light of God, the church has not, I think, understood this at the expense of Jesus' true humanity. Rather, it is in mediating the radiance of the glory of God that Jesus' humanity momentarily gives a foretaste the greatest possibilities for us as creatures who bear the imprint of the divine as beloved sons of God.

Were I to conclude here, the message would be one of hope and marvel at the glory that is to come. Yet, without denying any of that, I would be remiss to conclude at this point.

August 6 marks not only the commemoration of our Lord's transfiguration, but also an event that Dorothy Day called an "anti-transfiguration" - the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which resulted in tens of thousands of directly-targeted civilian deaths.

That day also brought a blinding light, suddenly bursting into the humanity of a city in southern Japan. Yet that radiance did not elevate our humanity or reveal humanity's grace-given possibilities to manifest the divine. Rather, though it brought us closer to ending a dark era of war, the detonation of that weapon of mass destruction opened subsequent history to and was itself one of the worst possibilities for our own inhumanity bent by evil.

On this day when the church remembers Jesus' transfigured determination to exhaust the powers of evil by setting his face to Jerusalem and handing himself over to them unto death, we should also allow this divine logic to question utilitarian reasoning that can too easily justify any means to achieve even noble ends against a determined, cruel, and relentless enemy. Questioning doesn't give us immediate answers, but it is necessary in order for the church to maintain - with Moses before Pharaoh and Elijah before Ahab - her prophetic distance over against all powers of this present world.

We may also recall that southern Japan was the center of Catholic Christianity in a nation that remains otherwise so resistant to the gospel of life.

Among the witnesses to the bombing of Hiroshima was Fr. Pedro Arrupe, a priest with medical training and the former Superior General of the Jesuits. At the time of the blast, he was a missionary in Japan living only a few miles from the city in a Jesuit residence house. The residence was heavily damaged and Fr. Arrupe was thrown across the room. He later wrote:
I will never forget my first sight of what was the result of the atomic bomb: a group of young women, eighteen or twenty years old, clinging to one another as they dragged themselves along the road. One had a blister that almost covered her chest; she had burns across half her face, and a cut in her scalp caused probably by a falling tile, while great quantities of blood coursed freely down her face. On and on they came, a steady procession numbering some 150,000.
Several days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped from the US B-29 Bockscar onto the city of Nagasaki, arguably the center of Catholic Christianity in Japan at the time. While the target was set between two Mitsubishi arms plants, and some of the city was protected by hills, the blast killed thousands of civilians, including entire religious communities of Christian nuns and brothers and worshippers preparing for the mid-day eucharist at the Catholic cathedral, which was destroyed (picture above).

We should be mindful, then, of all of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world who even today suffer as the collateral victims of conflicts not of their own making - in Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. We can pray for their deliverance and safety. We may pray that wars would cease and peace prevail. We may ask that God's Spirit would give them a vision of the hope embodied in the transfigured Jesus who shows us God's intended redemption of this broken, anti-transfigured world.

Many Christians also find themselves serving in the military of various governments and regimes, sometimes maintaining peace and sometimes entering into unavoidable conflict, sometimes caught in situations of deep moral ambiguity and sometimes themselves the perpetrators of unspeakable acts.

In 1945 Fr. George B. Zabelka was the Catholic military chaplain for the 509th Composite Group that carried out the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever the moral discernment one makes about those actions, it is difficult to conceive the emotional and moral toll on the soldiers involved and on this priest who was called upon to bless those involved.

Many years later Fr. Zabelka still struggled with what happened and returned to Japan. He explains:
In August of 1945, I, as a Christian and as a priest, served not as an agent of reconciliation but as an instrument of retaliation, revenge and homicide. My explicit and tacit approval of what was being done on Tinian Island that summer was clearly visible for anyone to see. Beyond this, I was the last possible official spokesman for the Church before the fire of hell was let loose on Hiroshima on the Feast of the Transfiguration 1945 – and I said nothing. I was the officially designated Catholic priest who by silence did his priestly patriotic duty and chose nationalism over Catholicism, Caesar over Christ, as the Bockscar, manned by Christians in my care, took off to evaporate the oldest and largest Christian community in Japan – Nagasaki. No, the fact that I was not physically on the planes is morally irrelevant. I played an important and necessary role in this sacrilege – and I played it meticulously. I am as responsible as the soldier who stuck the spear in the side of Christ on Calvary. I come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to repent and to ask forgiveness from the Japanese people, from my faith community at Nagasaki and from God.
Whether or not one agrees with the priest's judgment, it is difficult not to empathize with his tremendous sense of responsibility.

We may also today be mindful, then, of those Christians who are pressed into service by their various civil rulers to carry out actions which, even when perhaps justifiable, nonetheless come at a great human cost to both the lives of those who are affected by their actions and the souls of those who carry them out. It is not without reason that the medieval church required all returning soldiers, even those involved in justifiable conflicts, to take up the garb of mourners and penitents before re-entering the community of faith.

Again, we can pray for their deliverance and safety. We can pray that God would grant discernment and protect them from wrongdoing. We may ask that God's Spirit would give them too a vision of the hope embodied in the transfigured Jesus who shows us God's intended redemption of this broken, anti-transfigured world.
Father in heaven,
whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured
before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain,
and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem:
give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross
that we too by faith may be transformed into your image;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.