Transfiguration: n. 1.Radical transformation of figure or appearance: metamorphosis. 2. The sudden emanation of radiance from Jesus’ person that occurred on the mountain. Jesus is glowing whiter and brighter than anything ever seen (Luke 9:28-36). There’s Peter acting like a little kid: “Oh boy, you are all here together, Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Let’s build some booths!” Observes the text, “…not knowing what he had said.” Suddenly a cloud. Terror as they enter the cloud. Then the same off-stage voice heard all the way back at his baptism in the River Jordan: This is my Son, the Chosen – Listen to him!
We read this twice every year in the Episcopal Church: the last Sunday after the Epiphany and today, August 6, The Feast of the Transfiguration observed at least since the 9th century, codified on this date by Pope Callixtus III recalling the Raising of the Seige of Belgrade (1456). Little did Callixtus know that warfare would be inextricably linked to this feast and this date, for almost 500 years later the 393d Bombardment Squadron B-29 Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets would drop Little Boy, the first Atomic bomb, on the city of Hiroshima in Japan.
Suddenly the sky was brighter than “a thousand suns,” according to one pilot. A cloud that threatened to engulf the plane came over that city of 350,000 some people, mostly civilian. Terror overcame the population instantly, or at least for those who were not immediately incinerated in the first few moments. It is estimated that some 90,000 died that day, with the total five months later being some 200,000 altogether from the effects of radiation sickness, burns, and other injuries, not to mention the psychic and psychological damage done to those few who did survive. Contrast this with only 2 civilian casualties in the three days Battle of Gettysburg, a battle pitting approximately 200,000 soldiers that resulted in 46,000-51,000 deaths. I recall a quiet, early morning visit to Gettsyburg in 1975, the parks closed, no one else around, pondering only two civilian casualties in all that carnage while considering Hiroshima, Nagasaki and what we euphemistically call “modern” warfare with its “collateral damage.” I still weep at the very thought of it all.
To say the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were transfigured, to say Japan was transfigured, to say modern warfare was transfigured does not go far enough. Humanity was transfigured in ways that directly contrast with the events the feast day of August 6 means for us to recall: the glory and holiness of God to be reflected in the lives of people – all people, human beings. Since August 6, 1945, humanity has lived under the cloud and specter of Mutual Assured Destruction should these weapons ever be used again.
Strangely, some good has tried to emerge from what August 6 represents to many people around this fragile Earth, our island home in the vast reaches of the cosmos. A devastating World War was brought to an end; out of a deep human desire for world peace the United Nations was born; many people abandoned a view of security based in military might for a view of security based in peaceful co-existence; and the Right Reverend Bennett Sims, the late Bishop of Atlanta and former rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, developed a theology of Servanthood. This theology might be summed up by saying that our future depends on how we take care of the Earth and how we take care of one another – all others. Mutually Assured Servanthood.
Bishop Sims visited Nagasaki eleven weeks after our military instantly incinerated that city’s 39,000 civilian non-combatants, a death toll that eventually reached 64,000. After viewing the nuclear wasteland, Bishop Sims was returning to his naval destroyer by way of coal-fired steam train across Japan. A young man of fifteen was the conductor, cheerfully roaming the aisle, punching tickets in his badly worn and patched conductors jacket and cap. He sat down opposite Bennett and in sign language asked for a cigarette. Bennett offered up one of his Old Golds. Then the lad gestured for a light. Writes Sims,
“The act of lighting another’s cigarette, with wind blowing through the open windows of a moving train, brings people’s faces very close. His eyes and mine met only scant inches apart. Unbidden in that moment tears welled up, for both of us. Until a few minutes before we were total strangers. Until a few weeks before, we were sworn enemies, separated by war, propaganda, language differences, and distant geography. But in one swift removal of all barriers, two human beings drew close in a meeting of souls. On August 14th of that fateful year the war ended.
Better still, on October 25th peace came to two of us.” Servanthood (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA:1997), p.170.
From this experience, Bennett Sims drew several conclusions that would shape his life and ministry until his death in 2011: 1) humanity is created to be a community of kinship in peace, 2) the best things in life come by surprise, 3) the planet will support the human enterprise only as the human enterprise supports the planet, and 4) new life arises from the death of the old. “The human odyssey cannot continue without a quantum advance in consciousness that will build new structures of care for the earth and for one another across all boundaries.” Ibid, p.168
Bennett Sims and the young Japanese man on the train were transformed and transfigured in the blink of an eye. Just as Peter, James and John were transfigured before Jesus on the mountain top, their lives changed forever. The voice from the cloud implores us to listen to Jesus. This Feast Day of August 6th means to ask us, have we listened? We are meant to stop everything we are doing and reflect on such questions as: What will it take to transfigure our church? Our nation? The World? Where do the cycles of violence end? In what can National Security truly be based?
On another mountain top, on another day, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Bennett Sims concludes that the Transfiguration of Christ and the World is based in a kind of servanthood in which “great power functions as an exchange of power, never as coercion by superior forces. The universe is built this way. As the revealer of the Power that blew the cosmos into being and keeps it evolving, Jesus never coerces. Instead, it is his concise insistence by word and deed that greatness lies in giving – that superiority is embodied in serving. Persuasion is the posture of God.” Ibid, p. 173
The history of the past few generations on Earth has given us ample images of Transfiguration, both tragic and good. Jesus stands up on the mountain issuing the invitation to be transfigured for the good of the world into his servant people – to care for our planet and one another across all boundaries. To recall the last verse of one still sadly relevant song, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn….” (Where have all the flowers gone? Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson – Fall River Music, Inc.) Amen.