On 6 August 2012 NASA scientists successfully landed its rover robot Curiosity on Mars. Amid the rejoicing over such a stupendous feat darker memories surface, for on 6 August 1945 the U.S.A. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; on 9 August 1945 they dropped another on Nagasaki (observed by Leonard Cheshire, V.C.). It seems that in modern times this great feast of the Transfiguration is always to be marked with the colour of blood. Exploration of the Red Planet is a more acceptable use for nuclear technology than the destruction wreaked in 1945, but the juxtaposition of these events with the feast of the Transfiguration strikes me as thought-provoking.
What is it about the Transfiguration that captures our imagination? For myself, it is that combination of light and silence in a dazzling darkness on the mountainside; the bafflement of the disciples; the strange intensity of the revelation of Christ’s glory. It is almost as if there were something of a nuclear explosion on Tabor. But this extraordinary revelation, this glimpse of the Godhead, leads inexorably to Christ’s utter self-giving on the Cross. It is salvific. Historians argue, and will continue to argue, whether the use of atomic weapons was in some way necessary to end the Second World War: a ‘lesser’ evil to prevent a greater evil continuing. So, parallel or parody, who would dare to say?
The exploration of Mars may seem less overtly political, less likely to involve complex moral decisions, but it is not value-free. The decision to spend money and resources on this project rather than another is a choice with implications — not just for the U.S.A. but for everyone on earth. We do not know how other nations, especially China, view the undertaking. What to us may look like scientific research, pure and simple, may seem to others an attempt to lay claim to something that, in fact, none of us has a claim to.
The vision of the Transfiguration ended with the words, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, and the person of Jesus being all the disciples saw. Maybe if we listened more, if we allowed Jesus to take a more central place in our lives, we would experience less confusion, less doubt. I hope that Curiosity will teach us more than geology (though I shall be delighted to learn more geology in the process). I hope it will increase our sense of wonder and gratitude, and perhaps remind us how very small and fragile we human beings are in the scale of creation. Small and fragile, yes, but infinitely precious, too.