“From the darkness came a brilliant burst of fierce light many times brighter than the noonday sun. Instantly the desert and distant mountains were bathed in white brilliance. Even those with their eyes closed were able to sense the explosion of light and feel the warmth of it on their bodies.
“Those who recovered first turned to see, through dark squares of glass, a huge ball of fire, like the sun at close range, rising from the desert in a swirling inferno of reds and oranges and yellows.
“Shortly thereafter there was a loud crack, like a mighty roar.”
Dazzling white brilliance, light so fiercely intent it can be seen through closed eyes and felt through clothed bodies, a swirling inferno of cloud from which comes a mighty roar — these words sound like they could be another version of today’s gospel reading, the transfiguration of Jesus.
But these words have nothing to do with Jesus. The scene they describe is the first explosion of an atomic bomb in remote New Mexico, the testing of the weapon that would soon be used, not in a deserted desert, but in cities teeming with human life.
Today we remember two very different events in history. On the church calendar earlier this week, on August 6, we remember the Feast of the Transfiguration, that amazing mountaintop experience where Jesus’ glory is fully revealed.
Ironically, on history’s calendar that same day marks a transfiguration of another sort. Last Thursday, the day of the Transfiguration, was also the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, an epic explosion that killed more than 150,000 people, and was followed three days later with another atomic explosion in Nagasaki, which killed almost 100,000 people. Today is the 75th anniversary of that tragic day.
Two moments of transfiguration. Two moments that changed the world forever.
I have always been intrigued and a bit disturbed by the similarities in these very different events, amazed at how good and evil, on the surface, can appear so much alike.
The light of creation that dazzled the disciples at Jesus’ transfiguration and the light of destruction that blinded those present at the explosion of the atomic bomb look remarkably the same.
The thunderous, roaring clap of the explosion echoes the thunderous voice of God that spoke from the clouds above the mountain.
Witnesses to both events were told to be silent about what they had seen that day.
Two moments of transfiguration. Two moments that changed the world.
Years ago I was on a pilgrimage to New Mexico with a group of teenagers. When I realized we would be in the state on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I arranged for us to be in Los Alamos that day, to be in the place where the bombs were developed and tested.
We spent the morning at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Museum, where I expected we would see exhibits on the development of the bomb, and its aftermath and impact on the world, maybe even some some special commemoration on the anniversary of the first bombing.
I was half right. A film did show the history of the bomb’s development, emphasizing the secrecy and importance of the project. Pictures of the test in New Mexico were shown, the now familiar ominous mushroom cloud rising over the barren desert.
And then the film narrator announced that on August 6, 1945 the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, followed by a second bomb three days later in Nagasaki. Less than a week later, the narrator intoned, Japan surrendered and the long war was over.
And that was it. No pictures of destruction. No mention of deaths or injuries or radiation poisoning. No discussion of the continued development of ever more powerful bombs or the arms race that has consumed so much of the world’s energy and resources for the last 75 years.
Just this — the bombs were developed; they were dropped; and the war was ended. That, apparently, is all we need to know.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, generally considered to be the father of the atomic bomb, had a better understanding of the import and impact of the project to which he had devoted so much of his life. As he gazed at the test bomb’s brilliant light, he uttered the words of a sacred Hindu writing: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”
The world was indeed shattered that day, and in many ways has yet to recover.
With the bombings of Japan, a new kind of dread entered into the world, which has loomed over the lives of most people on the planet for three-quarters of a century now — the knowledge that human life — ours, theirs everyone’s — could come to an end in an instant. It’s the knowledge that any war could be the beginning of the end of live on earth.
It can be difficult to look at the world stage and see even a glimmer of hope, when every day we are living with the consequences of the transfiguration that occurred 75 years ago.
But on the anniversary of the world’s most horrific moment we are reminded that hope is there, and it comes from that first transfiguration, the transfiguration of Christ.
On that mountain Jesus was swept up into God’s glory and transformed before the eyes of his closest friends. Christ’s glory was revealed, both to Jesus and his disciples, to prepare and strengthen him for the suffering that was ahead.
When they came down from that mountain, scripture tells us that Jesus immediately “set his face to Jerusalem,” meaning he began the journey that would ultimately lead to his arrest, suffering, death, and resurrection.
The transfiguration of Christ links his glory with his suffering, and through it redeems both Christ’s suffering and the suffering of the world.
That does not mean God wants or wills us to suffer, or that suffering is a good thing. But it does mean that suffering and destruction and death and war are not the final word, that even in the midst of these evils there is hope, there is God.
And it shows us that there is another way besides the path of war and destruction and that is the way of Christ, a path of peace and justice and love.
Almost at the epicenter of the both that hit Nagasaki was an historic Catholic cathedral, the center of 400 years of Christian faith and worship. More that three-quarters of the city’s 12,000 Christians were killed that day.
Takashi Nagai, a Japanese Christian, doctor, and writer, who survived the bombing, but died from radiation-induced leukemia several years later, wrote a book about the transfiguration of his city, his life, and his faith.
He ends it with this ringing message:
“Men and women of the world, never again plan war! From this atomic waste the people of Nagasaki prostrate themselves before God and pray: Grant that Nagasaki may be the last atomic wilderness in the history of the world.”
Today we remember two moments of transfiguration. Two moments that changed the world forever.
We hear the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”
And we hear the words of God, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”
It is up to us to decide which voice to follow.