Saturday, August 06, 2005

Transfiguration

Yesterday, the 6th of August, is the traditional date for the feast of the Transfiguration, the almost dream-like episode that the gospel writers tell us about where Jesus appears to three of the disciples transformed from the inside out, shining with an unearthly light, or as some of the older translations put it, a ‘glistering light’ that overwhelms and confuses them – and then a cloud comes down on them suddenly and wraps around them and terrifies them as it would any mountain climber who suddenly can’t see a foot in front of them – and in the cloud they hear a voice that terrifies them even more.  The wonderful thing about Mark’s gospel is that he never goes out of his way to make the disciples look good, Mark’s gospel is good news indeed for disciples who are all too human, disciples who – deep down – know they don’t really know what’s going on.

Yesterday, the 6th of August, also marks the anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima – and the cloud of nuclear anxiety that has hung over human history for the last 60 years.  Strangely, the Japanese word that translates the Greek term for transfiguration, also has the meaning of disfiguration.  The blinding light that transformed Jesus in front of his disciples’ eyes, since 1945, is forever associated with the light that briefly shone brighter than the sun over Hiroshima, and two days later over the city of Nagasaki.  The cloud that envelopes Peter, James and John on top of the mountain is forever to be associated with the immense mushroom cloud that grows over a city in the moments before it is obliterated.  The feast of the Transfiguration must forever be associated with its opposite, the feast of Disfiguration.  What are we, as Christians, to make of this?

We might wonder, for a start, at the paradox in both of these events.  A quick look at the Letters pages in the newspaper is enough to show the difficulty we still have in interpreting the events of August 1945.  Was the atomic bomb, quite simply, monstrous?  Or, was there a deeper morality in dropping the bomb that arguably shortened the war and saved lives?  The dreadful responsibility for helping to create such a diabolical weapon was maybe best expressed at the time by scientist Robert Oppenheimer who quoted from the sacred text of the Bhagavad-Gita, saying, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’.  The blinding white light of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima at one and the same time represents the triumph and power of human intellect, the penetration of the secrets of matter itself – as well as humanity’s inability to resist the fascination of despair and self-destruction. 

But maybe it’s fitting that we are reminded on the anniversary of this dreadful event -  that right in the middle of the fearful memory of Hiroshima we see Jesus, journeying towards his own crucifixion and still suffering today in innocent victims everywhere - but radiating the transforming power of God.

Mark tells us all this happens just after Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to have to suffer and die, and he says, if you really want to follow me – if you really want to be my disciple you have to give up everything you value, everything you ever wanted, and follow me to the cross.  If you want to be my disciple, you have to suffer.

You wonder why it’s so hard to get people to come to church!  Even the disciples found this a bit much, let alone people like us who live in a society that makes a virtue out of pleasure, a society that teaches that pain is to be avoided at all costs, there’s always a pill or an operation to make it go away.  Peter even tells Jesus off for not thinking positively, but here’s the point – the God of Jesus, the God of Moses and the God of Elijah is not safe, does not promise us that we will be immunised from the hardships of life but does promise to be with us no matter what.

It’s easy to see the presence of God in the risen Jesus, on the other side of the cross – the Jesus who amazes us with his sudden appearances and disappearances – but what we are seeing here is a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus right in the middle of his conflicted humanity, right as he reveals to his disciples that he is going to have to suffer and die.  It’s harder for us to imagine God hanging on the cross, in the middle of defeat and humiliation, but that is what Mark is reminding us of with this cameo of Jesus’ divinity on the road to the cross.  The appearance of Moses and Elijah – the two great figures who Jews believed lived in the presence of God - talking with Jesus – should have helped the disciples understand and believe what Jesus was promising.  And yet, as Mark tells us, even on the brink of a new vision of reality, they still don’t get the point.  They back away, Peter taking refuge in talking for the sake of hearing his own voice, it’s maybe only in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and the baffling vision at the empty tomb that their minds begin to grasp what Jesus is offering. 

The light of Transfiguration and the light of disfigurement, I would like to suggest, embody the same paradox, the same impossible linking between creativity and imagination, joy and new life on the one hand, and humiliation, suffering and death on the other – and both extremes are revealed as the place where God acts, the place where God is with us and for us.  In his book, ‘The Bells of Nagasaki’, published just before his death in 1951, Doctor Takashi Nagai, who survived the atomic explosion and spent the following days bringing medical relief to other survivors, makes the startling claim that in the mushroom cloud of destruction he heard the voice of God.  Nagai remembers that the bells of the cathedral in Nagasaki kept ringing, right after the atom bomb exploded, in the middle of the destruction, and he dares to see the suffering of the people of Nagasaki as an invitation to share in the suffering of Christ.  Just as the cloud that descended over Jesus’ disciples on that mountain revealed the glory of Christ even at the moment of his greatest suffering, so Nagai claims the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki speaks of that same glory, experienced through unspeakable suffering. Just as Jesus’ suffering brings redemption, Nagai claims, so does the suffering of human beings. 

Today, Ethan’s mum and dad have brought him to be baptised, and in a moment we are going to pour water on his head and make him, for a very brief moment, the world’s newest Christian.  The Feast of the Transfiguration is a very good day for this.  Because in baptism we see re-enacted the very same paradox that Hiroshima reveals, the very same paradox that the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt Tabor reveals.  Forget gentle Jesus meek and mild!  The God of Jesus, the God of Moses and Elijah is not tame.  Christian initiation and Christian spirituality is not a warm fuzzy reassurance but the death defying, life-affirming claim that God is with us no matter what.  Early generations of Christians, who would never have dreamed of baptising anyone without a good, full-body immersion in icy-cold water, knew very well that in the drowning waters of baptism we share in Jesus’ suffering and death, and when we are brought up spluttering and gasping for air we claim our share of resurrection life.  Heady stuff, and we claim that for Ethan today even though we’re going to be a little less vigorous.

The God of Jesus, the God of Moses and Elijah, is not safe.  But this God is with us and for us.  This God is revealed in our lives and in our world, right in the heart of our most dreadful recurring nightmares is the God who makes us and all things new.  This is the claim, and the hope that made it possible for Takashi Nagai to become a symbol of new life in post-war Japan – and the hope that – if we are prepared to grasp it – can enable us to become agents of resurrection in the world we live in.