Thanks to Jim Forest
August 6, 2016
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfiguration
By Nicholas Sooy
A light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. “This is my son whom I love, listen to him,” said the voice. The disciples fell to the ground. Christ then said to them “Do not be afraid.” This event on Mt. Tabor was a great mystery to the world, the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is not just a sign that Christ shows us the Divine, but a sign that we too will one day shine in the radiance of Divine life. The Church teaches that every human is the bearer of the image of God and is the real Body of Christ. The Earth too bears that image, for it bears us, it is the chalice which holds the most sacred thing in creation- life. Orthodox Christians believe that all creation will be transfigured, and that if we just “listen to him,” we will love all humans, love all creation, love all life, and honor the sacred beauty therein.
71 years ago today, on the feast of the Transfiguration, a light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. In an instant 66,000 souls fell to the ground, never to get up again. The city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single bomb, the A-Bomb. The land was disfigured, irradiated. Over 100,000 ended up perishing from its effects, and those who survived it were changed, bearing the disfiguration in their bodies. This Bomb was a great mystery to the world, and through it the United States meant to speak to the world and to say “Be afraid.”
Hiroshima did not face the A-Bomb because of the grave threat the city posed. Some months before, the Americans decided that they should drop the weapon once they had built it, to see what would happen. The primary goals of the bombing were to strike fear into the Japanese, forcing them to surrender, and to strike fear into the world, establishing the dominance of the United States. Hiroshima was ideally suited to these ends, due to its compact nature. Nuclear weapons expend most of their energy at the epicenter of the blast, and so a special city would be required to showcase how disfiguring the weapon could be. As a bonus, there were weapons stored in the city which would later be claimed as the main target of the attack.
Hiroshima was chosen to be the site of revelation to the world. The bomb had been revealed to a select group in New Mexico earlier that summer. The scientists and officials watched with great reverence and devotion. One blind woman miles away said she saw the light as well. A semi-official report of that first blast read “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” The operation was named Trinity.
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Transfiguration is a second Theophany. At Theophany, the Trinity was revealed to the world. At Transfiguration, it was revealed to a select group.
Visit Hiroshima today, and you may still see the disfiguration. As Robin Wright recounts,
>> Everything about Hiroshima is haunting, particularly the stories and remnants of extinguished young lives collected in the museum. There’s a battered lunchbox belonging to Shigeru Orimen, who was in his first year of junior high. His mother was able to identify the boy’s burned body because he was still clutching it. There’s a shredded school cap and uniform on a skeletal mannequin. They were assembled from meagre rags of clothing left on three boys, aged twelve to fifteen, who happened to be a thousand yards from the bomb’s hypocenter above Hiroshima. There’s a re-created panorama of a woman and child fleeing the blast. Covered with soot and dust, their skin is scorched and bloody, their hair, fried, stands on end, and ripped pieces of clothing hang off their bodies as they attempt to escape the fires consuming the city. The eeriest display is a ghostlike shadow imprinted on a stone step as the blast vaporized the human being who had been sitting there.
Also present in the museum is a small, charred tricycle. It belonged to a three year old boy who had been outside riding it when the 16 kiloton bomb, called “Little Boy” by the Americans, was dropped on the city. His father would find him later in the rubble, on death’s doorstep, still clinging to the handlebars of the tricycle. What did the world gain with the death of this child and the many other children of the city?
Overhead, another American plane accompanied the B-29 bomber. This plane was there to silently observe the effects of the bomb. It was named “Necessary Evil” by the Americans.
Three days later, another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. The crew were all Christians and just before leaving, they sat with two Christian Chaplains who blessed them and their mission. Nagasaki was home to the largest Christian community in Japan. Over half of the Christians in Japan were killed by the bomb, succeeding where 200 years of intense persecution by the Japanese government had failed. The steeple of the Cathedral of St. Mary was used by the bombers for targeting. The bomb exploded directly over the Cathedral, which was the largest Christian Church in the orient at the time, with over 15,000 members. Exactly one week before Hiroshima was bombed was the feast of St. John the Soldier of Constantinople. St. John was canonized for his refusal to kill Christians and other innocents and for disobeying orders to do so. Some of the crew expressed doubt about the bomb they were dropping, but “orders were orders.” Orthodox Christians were among those killed in the blast.
Orthodoxy was brought to Japan by St. Nicholas, a Russian. He was a voice of peace, having once nonviolently disarmed a Samurai through his preaching. He was protected by the people during the anti-Russian sentiment that reined during the Russian-Japanese war, for he was beloved. The bomb was not as merciful to the Christian population.
The bombs disfigured land and people, and before long disfigured truth as well. The Orthodox Church unequivocally condemns the use of nuclear weapons, as does the Catholic Just War theory. Yet the bomb is commonly viewed as a great gift to the war. Contrary to this, Dwight Eisenhower, who was the Army Chief of Staff for Truman, wrote “Japan was already defeated and . . . dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” Japan had been appealing to the Russians, who were neutral at the time, to negotiate Japanese surrender since the beginning of the summer. Four days before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan sent a communication to the ambassador in Moscow, “It is requested that further efforts be exerted … Since the loss of one day may result in a thousand years of regret.” Japan had been ready to surrender for some time, but was reluctant to accept the unconditional surrender the Allies demanded. The Japanese wanted to surrender on the condition that the Emperor be allowed to live, and that the traditional religion based around him not be abolished. Only a little diplomacy could have prevented a summer of destruction.
Japan hoped that Russia could guarantee these terms. When Japan did accept unconditional surrender on August 15, the Leavetaking of the Transfiguration, it was not because the bombs had been dropped, but because Russia had declared war on Japan, and all hope at a better diplomatic solution were dashed. After the bombing on August 6, no action was taken. 66 cities had already been destroyed by firebombing that summer, and the Japanese generals, professional soldiers, did not care about city bombing. Their troops were still well positioned, and civilian casualties were inconsequential. The fire-bombing of Tokyo killed more people, 120,000 total, than the bombing of Hiroshima killed. The Japanese simply considered the A-Bomb as no great threat. Hiroshima was just the 67th city destroyed, and it was not the worst bombing that summer. It merely suffered a different type of bomb. But, when the Russians declared war on August 8, action was taken immediately. The next morning, the Japanese leaders gathered to discuss unconditional surrender. The tide had been turned by the Russians. Later that afternoon, after their discussions, word would reach these leaders that Nagasaki had been bombed as well. Of course, later the Japanese would claim that the bombs had turned the tide of the war. Such a lie pleased the Americans who then controlled the country and were responsible for rebuilding it. The appeasement worked. Emperor Hirohito was allowed to live, and the royal family was not abolished.
In the ensuing years, wars were waged over the bomb. An arms race broke out in the world, to be won by those who could disfigure the world the most, even destroy it. Proxy battles were fought in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. We still live in the shadow of the bomb today. But there is not just shadow, but also the light of Tabor.
Today we celebrate. The Transfiguration is a promise to a broken world. A promise that all scars will be healed, all divisions overcome, all wars ended, and all souls restored. The Earth will no longer be a crucible of destruction, but the realm of the Kingdom. Atomic radiation will not shine forth from broken bodies, but the uncreated light from transfigured ones. Men will no longer aspire to harness the power of God, but will kneel before their king. There will no longer be cause to be afraid.
Today we remember. Once again the human race had looked upon itself and the world it inhabited with fear, hatred, and violence, and resorted to the most heinous mass execution of civilians that had ever occurred in an instant- the fruits of our dehumanizing fear. Against this, we find the words of the Transfigured whispering to us, “do not be afraid.” Let us pray that we do not need another great cloud and light before we “listen to him.”
contributing editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship
The Scandal of the Transfiguration
Fr. Stephen Freeman
My bishop recently shared the story of a young man whom he taught some years ago. He was Orthodox from Estonia. He grew up in the Soviet era and had come to hate all things Russian, including the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, he saw an Orthodox procession in the streets of his city one year, a procession that included the Russian bishop (whom he also hated and believed to be a KGB agent). However, he saw the bishop surrounded by light. It was an experience that led him into the Orthodox faith. You might hate the man, and the Church as well. But the undeniable glory of God revealed what his hatred could not see.
My bishop’s point in sharing the story was not to exonerate the Russian Church from any wrong-doing, or cooperation with wrong-doing. Nor was it to exonerate the bishop involved and declare him holy. It was a story about the glory of God and its place and work despite our faults and failures. The 12 apostles cast out demons, healed the sick and cleansed lepers. We are nowhere told that Judas did none of those things. Doubtless, he did (which makes his betrayal all the greater).
There was a heresy in the early Church that denied the efficacy of the sacraments if they were performed by sinners. The debate was largely about those who, under the pressure of persecution, had in any way denied their faith or yielded to the requirements of the pagan state. It is an easy line of thought to maintain. If we are commanded to be holy, surely there are consequences for failure to observe the commandment. There are indeed consequences within the canons of the Church, but those consequences do not include an inefficacy of the sacraments.
The scandal of the Incarnation, God-becoming-man, is the seeming contradiction of the utterly transcendent God and the particularity and limits of human existence. It is a scandal whose errors run in two directions.
First, there is an assumption that God is so displeased with sin that He can have nothing to do with it, or that sin somehow nullifies the work of God. Second, there is an equally odious belief that human beings, in their observance of the commandments, are ever righteous enough to actually be compatible with true holiness. The first is an error about God, the second an error about human beings.
I’m always troubled to hear “there is no grace outside the Church.” I can’t fathom what such a statement means. Since the entire universe is sustained by the grace of God, I can only assume a sort of heresy of secularism by such a statement – the notion that anything can exist apart from God’s grace. For His own mysterious reasons, God even sustains the fallen angels by His grace. If it were not so, they would cease to exist. Only God has existence in and of Himself.
I can say “there is no grace outside the Church” only if I also say that everything in all of creation is inside the Church. In fact, I believe this to be true. The Church came into existence when God said, “Let there be light.” The sacraments do not make us to be what we are not, but reveal us to be what we truly are. Baptism and Chrismation are indeed required of those coming to Holy Communion, for they are fundamental realities in the medicine of immortality and the path of life God has given us. But the person who is Baptized does not somehow become other than what they are. They become more fully human, more truly what they were created to be. “The Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking,” it is said in our prayers.
There are boundaries which we describe as “the Church,” but this meaning is being used to specify that which is identified with the fullness of life in Christ. “Church”, in this usage, is “that which is reconciled.” St. Paul says that the end of all things is that they be “gathered together in one in Christ Jesus.” This is the Church, in the end.
Too frequently we speak of the Church in denominational terms, in which we speak of people who are reconciled in the fullness of Orthodoxy as though their “membership” constituted the whole of the Church. But St. Paul extends the Church to “all things.” Thus, the grass and the trees (and certainly the flour and the wine) are being gathered together into Christ. The Eucharist is not a gathering meant to exclude everything else. It is a gathering that represents everything else. “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee.” What is there within all of creation that is not God’s own? Indeed, the members of the Church who gather, are themselves but the “first fruits” of the whole Adam.
And so we have the reality of glowing bishops who might be hated in Estonia (just as many other bishops might be hated elsewhere). The transfiguration (for such was the scene in that procession) of God’s creation is simply shocking to us. It is a manifestation of the love of God that ignores all scandal, except that which does not love. It is a transfiguration that gives light and that burns.
Many take a cold comfort in the fact that the transfiguring light of God burns some. However, it most often burns the eyes of those who judge the fitness of those transfigured. They become blind in this very manner.
The Transfiguration of Christ would generally be deemed to be free of scandal. He appeared on the Holy Mount with Moses and Elijah – how could the disciples not rejoice. But the text describes a scandal.
As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:29-31)
Christ, in turn, spoke to the disciples about His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem, and Peter rebuked Him! The great scandal is always the scandal of the Cross. There is no path to true union with God that does not go through the Cross. This is true finally of all those who are transfigured as well as for all who hope to ever see a transfiguration.
It is of note that the Greek beneath this translation does not say that Christ was speaking with Moses and Elijah about His “decease.” The text calls it His “exodus.” It is not a casual word choice. His journey into death is the Great Exodus, the path through the Red Sea that drowns the mystical Pharaoh. It is the Lord’s Passover.
That Passover is the path to transfiguration. Moses himself, after the Passover, leads the people to a different holy mountain. There he received the Law written by the very finger of God. When he came down from the mountain his face was transfigured and the people were afraid to look at him – and asked him to please wear a veil.
In Christ the veil is removed, except for those who wear a veil covering their heart (2Cor. 3). But God is so merciful, He sometimes removes the veil so that angry young men on the streets of Estonia (which is everywhere) may see His glory and live.