The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2017
Three witnesses. Three witnesses to the day that changed the world. Three witnesses saw the light, a light that was beyond any light ever seen before on earth. After beholding the light of the moment, high up on that hill, one witness said, “it seemed a sheet of sun.” Another one of the witnesses of that moment said that, “everything flashed whiter than any white” they had ever seen. It was a moment, just one brief moment in time, when everything stopped. When the blinding, dazzling, white light inaugurated a new era in the life of the world. A light from the heavens. That third witness, overcome by what he had seen, could only manage to say, “My God.”
That light struck fear into the hearts of those three witnesses, obviously. They were terrified, for what they had seen no one on earth had ever seen before. And what they had seen was the flash of an atomic bomb.
There is some coincidence, or perhaps it’s providence, that the Church’s Feast of the Transfiguration which is today, August 6, is the same day as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. We heard the story of the Transfiguration today from the Gospel of Luke, and every year on this day the Church is forced to call to mind the bombing of Hiroshima. The parallels are chilling. A dazzling light from the heavens. Witnesses who can hardly comprehend what they have seen. Terror, fear, confusion all around.
Kiyoshi Tanimoto was a Methodist pastor in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. From his vantage point on a hill outside the city, he was the one who said the blast seemed a sheet of the sun. As he made his way through the wreckage of the city later that day, everything about the city had changed. Because much of it was simply not there any more. Peter, James, and John climb this hill with Jesus, and Jesus’ appearance completely changes. In a flash, in a moment, it’s obvious that Jesus is no mere mortal. Everything has changed.
It was a seamstress who said of the bomb that everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She was terrified. Not all that different from how Luke paints the picture of Jesus’ transfiguration, “his clothes became dazzling white,” and the three disciples were terrified.
Of the bomber crew of the Enola Gay, the plane that delivered that frightful weapon, only three of the airmen knew what kind of bomb it was. The others were only told to wear dark goggles. And in the flash of that moment, there was silence on the plane’s intercom except for a sudden gasp as they all cried out, “my God.”
“My God,” the disciples must have thought, as they beheld Moses and Elijah with Jesus on that mountain in dazzling glory. Moses represents the Old Testament Law; Elijah stands for the Old Testament prophets. And here they are, the pillars of history conversing with the man who represents the future of God’s Kingdom. There was the age of Moses, there was the age of Elijah, and now is there is a new beginning again with Jesus. In a flash of white, in dazzling array, the world enters a new era. “My God,” the disciples must have thought. This Jesus, this God, has begun something new.
In a more sinister way, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima also inaugurated a new age. There had been the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age. Then, in a single flash on the morning of August 6, 1945, the world entered a new age; the Atomic Age.
It wasn’t just a bomb that went off that morning, it was a new way of understanding humanity. Peter, James, and John came to understand God in a new way, with the bomb we came to understand ourselves in a new way. We had grasped the technological and mechanical ability to erase ourselves from history. I think that much of the latent fear, anxiety, and stress in our culture stems from this internalized realization that with a single flash, humanity could be gone. That sheet of sun, that whiter than any white ever seen before, changed the world. We live with the shadow of Hiroshima in our minds, knowing full well that the power released that day is but a fraction of the power we now hold in our hands. And like the disciples, we are terrified.
Our thoughts now turn to North Korea and to all the foreign powers who also harness this catastrophic threat of the atomic bomb. We fear others who could threaten the existence of life on earth. And that’s the other parallel between the Transfiguration of Jesus and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima – both call into question life and death. Notice what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about; they are talking about Jesus’ “departure.” That is, his crucifixion. His death. His resurrection. The flash of that moment forced Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to consider life and death.
In a flash, on August 6, 1945, 80,000 people vanished from the earth. Regardless of its role in ending World War II, this bombing should still give us pause. That we hold such tremendous and terrible power to kill.
In moments when the world changes – be it the Transfiguration or Hiroshima – we must consider our existence. Our life and death. That has happened to you, it’s happened to me. In a flash, your world changes and it calls everything into question. A child is born, a diagnosis is made, a check bounces. It’s never just about that moment, it’s about life and death. It’s about how a new era has begun in our lives.
Now, there is one curiosity about the atomic bomb that I have to mention. No one in Hiroshima remembers hearing a sound. No thunderous boom. No explosion. Just a sheet of the sun. Of course, there was a boom. People far away from Hiroshima heard it. But for those at hand it could have been that the light was so overwhelming it was as if their ears couldn’t hear.
Peter, James, and John, they hear something. In the midst of their fear and terror, they hear a mysterious voice from a cloud, and whether it sounded like a thunderclap or a whisper we don’t know. All we do know is what the voice says, “this is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. When you are terrified because a cloud has come into your life, listen for the love of God. When you see a news story about intercontinental ballistic missiles and military exercises, listen to Jesus. Listen to the voice telling you that you are loved and that God loves the whole world, no matter what happens. When the talking heads are speculating wildly about geopolitics and sanctions, listen to Jesus. Listen to the voice telling you that with God, even death is nothing to be afraid of. This is God’s Son, the chosen, listen to him.
In this age of uncertainty, it is awfully easy to be trapped in fear. And remember, it’s not love and hate that are opposites. No, it’s love and fear that are opposites. Love draws us outward as fear drives us inward. Fear is contagious. Fear is addictive. We live and breathe fear. Fear is what runs political campaigns, fear is why we amass such terrible weapons, fear is what drives us to distrust each other. This is not so much the Atomic Age, as it is the Age of Fear. We may not recognize all the ways that fear shapes our lives, but then again, a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.
And so I must ask you – what do you fear? And when you are overcome with terror, who are you listening to? In the moments when your world has changed, do you respond in love or fear? Do you seek life or death? Listen to Jesus, and you will have nothing to fear. Listen to Jesus, and you will hear love.