Today is August 6.
Three “days” connect with the date of August 6: in the traditional Christian calendar with the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (there are some contemporary commemorations at other times of the year); with Hiroshima Day; and today in Vancouver, because the Sunday of the holiday weekend falls this year on August 6, with the Pride parade–three very different observances of a single calendar date. And is there, I wonder, a way of linking these three very different ways of observing the day?
The biblical accounts of the Transfiguration will be found in the first three gospels: Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36, and in the second letter of Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18). The gospel accounts all tell the same story. Jesus asks his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, to come with him for a time of prayer on a mountain-top. (The mountain is not named, but of course there are various speculations as to which mountain it might be.) Jesus is “transfigured,” i.e., his form is changed into one of intense radiance. As this happens, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, identified since the third century as representing the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) with Jesus representing the Gospel–the three prime elements of Christian scripture. They converse, and then a heavenly voice is heard, commanding its hearers to listen to Jesus. The disciples collapse in fear; and when they recover, Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus has returned to his original form. As they go down the mountain, Jesus asks the disciples to keep the story to themselves until after the resurrection, something they don’t understand. The Transfiguration first became a fixture in the Christian calendar in the ninth century, and was declared a feast of universal observance in 1456 by the pope.
It was on August 6 in 1945 that the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, thereby inaugurating the nuclear age. (A second bomb was dropped on August 9 on the city of Nagasaki.) The August 6 bomb was responsible for 140,000 deaths and countless injuries. Peace activists ever since, beginning with Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, two of the scientists involved in its development, have struggled to have nuclear weapons banned. On July 7, 122 of the 193 members of the United Nations agreed on a draft treaty on the banning of nuclear weapons. None of the nine nations possessing nuclear weapons support the treaty, for obvious self-interested reasons. The US, the UK and France have issued a joint statement expressing their opposition to the treaty, which they say disregards the realities of the international security environment–a statement of stupefying blindness and shortsightedness. Nor did Canada, to our shame, support it, in misguided deference to the request of the US to its NATO allies that they decline to support it. Once 50 states ratify the treat, it will come into effect.
Today is also the day in Vancouver of the Pride Parade, to which the media told me that more than 100,000 people were expected. (The whole set of observances of the week, interestingly, is simply referred to as “Pride” in ordinary conversation, with no modifiers.) The co-preachers at church this morning were two gay men, espoused to each other. Each one told his story of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in which they were told that homosexuality was evil, and a matter for shame. Again each one told a story of breaking free of this negative formation, and coming to a place of self-acceptance.
If “transfiguration” can refer to a major shift in understanding, it seems to me that it can serve as a rubric linking these three “days.” The transfiguration of Jesus gave the disciples a new way of understanding their teacher, as a divine as well as human person, at least as the writer of the gospels presents him. The hideous effect of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was one in which a blast of intense radiance physically transfigured the city (and Nagasaki three days later), and simultaneously shifted our understanding of the necessity of bringing to an end any possibility of such weapons ever being used again. And transfiguration is not too large a word to describe the shifts in social attitudes towards homosexuality over the last fifty years or so. We have moved from a society in which homosexual acts were criminal acts to one in which the marriage of two persons of the same sex is legally and socially (for the most part) accepted.
Transfiguration in its biblical meaning was something I became aware of after my faith came alive as a teenager; and over my years as a parish priest, I faithfully observed the day in its primal sense. Then when I became active in the peace movement in the eighties, I regularly took part in Hiroshima Day presentations. (I remember one such day in particularly, perhaps 1986 or so, when I spoke at a peace rally at the art gallery on August 6.) I have never taken part in a Pride Parade, but many of my friends have; and I usually get a report on it from my daughter Rebekah.
I conclude by reflecting on these “days” in terms of the social energy invested in their observance. Liturgically, the Christian feast-day receives very little energy from the churches, and none at all from society in general. Hiroshima Day, and the peace movement in general, has faded in public consciousness–not entirely (there was a two-page folio article in The Globe and Mail this week on Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow), but considerably when compared to the public attention it received in the eighties. By contrast, massive public energy is poured into Pride. I have no objection at all to this; at the same time, with acceptance of the LGBTQ cohort as part of the general community, I would like to see at least a portion of the energy that goes into the celebration of Pride go into keeping nuclear issues higher in public consciousness. (“This ought ye to do, and not leave the other undone”–Matthew 23:23 KJV.) We are in fact in terrible danger (more from possible accidents than deliberate acts of war) from nuclear weapons.
The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is an internationally recognized design that conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making. First and foremost among these are nuclear weapons, but the dangers include climate-changing technologies, emerging biotechnologies, and cybertechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm, whether by intention, miscalculation, or by accident, to our way of life and to the planet. At the moment, the Clock is set at two and one-half minutes to midnight.
All of which leaves Jesus. I understand Jesus as someone who challenges us to the transformation of our consciousness in regard both to seeing people of all kinds and orientations as equally sacred, and to an equally thorough-going transformation of consciousness in regard to our simultaneously lazy and fearful inability, so far, to wean ourselves off the false “protections” offered by nuclear weapons.
These are consummations devoutly to be wished.
Don I found your integrated reflection on the icons of law, prophecy & gospel illuminating. I am hoping viewers will find this article by another icon, a Canadian Peace Activist, enlightening.
”Why Canada should sign the treaty banning nuclear arms….The majority of countries now agree that the faulty doctrine of nuclear deterrence must be replaced with a sincere desire to build a global security architecture without nuclear weapons. This is a struggle of titanic proportions.” Douglas Roche, former Senator & Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament & Honourary citizen of Hiroshima contributed to Globe & Mail July 29 2017
Thank you Don. Creative and informative as always, Elaina
Your thoughtful article has made me aware (once again) that a Christian is not simply an “improved” version of a person; a Christian is an entirely new creature.
Today August 8 – I (forgoing self-idolatry and pride) was the one who needed to be changed, to be transformed as a Christian – as a new creation. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Nick, very thoughtful response. Many thanks. DG