Transfiguration 2020

When the Cluniacs gave the Church the beautiful feast of the Transfiguration, they can have had no idea how it would come to be associated with both some of the blackest and potentially most luminous events in history. The dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima seventy-five years ago today has seared the memory of us all with its strange and terrible glare that brought darkness upon the world, a darkness we can never deny or undo. But go on a little. In 1981 Sir Tim Berners-Lee published the first page of what would become the world wide web, the potential of which is still unfolding. It is a light in the darkness, an example of human skill and visionary impulse which can be used for good not ill. Then we think of Lebanon and the misery brought about (apparently) by human greed and corruption and there are no words, only silence and tears and an inarticulate appeal to the mercy of God.

When Jesus climbed Mount Tabor and was transfigured in the presence of his disciples, he allowed them to glimpse his glory as God in his human flesh. Some scholars think the Transfiguration occurred at night. For me, that makes the disciples’ experience not only mysterious but compelling: an event so unexpected that it has to be remembered. The disciples were forced to remember it in every detail, made to recall their inadequate response (poor Peter, getting it wrong again!), puzzle over it, pray over it. I think that is why the Cluniacs developed a liturgy to celebrate the Transfiguration and why the Universal Church adopted it as a feast. The Transfiguration helps us take those things we don’t really understand and hand them over to God to deal with because he knows what he is doing even when we don’t. It allows us to see beyond our human limitations. It lets God into the human situation with an intensity and freedom we might otherwise try to prevent. In short, it means God is God here and now, no matter how much we try to thwart him.

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Transfiguration 2012

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail