by Johnny Zokovitch
Pax Christi USA Executive Director

NOTE: Johnny was invited to offer the following reflection at this past weekend’s Masses at his parish in St. Louis on the Feast of the Transfiguration. You can read the pastoral reflection that was printed in the bulletin that accompanied the homily by clicking here.

The Transfiguration

As a student of scripture, the transfiguration is one of my favorite passages. There’s a ton here to unpack, especially narratively, from the significance of the mountain to why Moses and Elijah show up but not David or Abraham to Peter’s puzzling desire to construct three tents and what that weirdness might be all about.

But August 6, 1945, changed forever the lens through which Christians, especially Christians here in the US, should and must read this passage.

Karl Barth, the great Protestant biblical scholar, spoke of what was essential in reading scripture. He said our study of scripture must be with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Or, since I might be the youngest person I know who still subscribes to the physical, hard-copy newspaper, Barth might say your iPad or tablet or whatever device you regularly get your news of the world on.

It is that intersection of what is happening in the world with the stories of our scripture that make the bible a living word. It is this ongoing conversation between the gospel stories and our cultural, political and economic narratives where our faith must be worked out.

Thus do we find a grotesque symmetry between reading the story of the transfiguration today, the 78th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and how this Feast Day is forever linked to the violent eruption of the nuclear age.

Only if we are living in denial or willful ignorance or scripturally illiterate can we not cringe or tremble at the language of Matthew in the years following Hiroshima: “he was transfigured before them, his face shone like the sun, his clothes white as light” and “a bright cloud cast a shadow over them.”

I was in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 2017, and the testimony of survivors spoke of bodies DIS-figured, a perverse mockery of transfiguration. They spoke of a flash of light like the sun, but it was a white light which burned their eyes; and a cloud, like a mushroom, casting a shadow over the destruction of the city and the tens of thousands who died in that first instant, with over 300,000 dying eventually from the effects of the bombing.

My affinity for today’s passage in scripture lies in the fact that it is built around what is the simplest of requests that God makes of Peter, James and John – and by extension all of us who would take up their mantle these past two thousand years, calling ourselves disciples of Jesus. It is the voice from the biblical cloud that says: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. LISTEN TO HIM.” Listen to him. This is no summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, no Catechism of the Catholic Church, with their hundreds of thousands of words. It’s just three words: Listen. To. Him.

If our scientists and military leaders and elected officials actually had listened to him, there would never have been that other cloud, the one over Hiroshima, nor the next one over Nagasaki. The voice that spoke from those clouds said something else. It was the voice of another kind of power, crying out in gleeful ecstasy and awe, “We have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Maybe the voice of the chief priests, or Pilate; maybe Caesar. But not the voice of God.

As human beings, we still struggle, in big ways and in small, with the fundamental choice that God placed before the Israelites in Deuteronomy: “I set before you the choice between life and death, between blessing and curse.”

Culture warriors on the right who lament that the United States is rapidly losing its identity as a Christian nation have a point, despite exhibiting no evidence that they have any understanding of what it actually means to be a follower of Jesus, or, for that matter, any clue about who Jesus is, what he said, did, taught, died and rose for.

If slavery didn’t make it clear enough, if Jim Crow didn’t, if capitalism and wealth inequity hasn’t made it obvious … if misogyny and ridiculous attacks on “woke-ness” and the marginalizing of LGBTQ+ folks, the obscenity of a military budget in the billions of dollars while veterans are homeless on our streets, the fact that the US imprisons millions of our fellow human beings, the complete and utter grip that the NRA has on our elected leaders and the children that are frequently sacrificed on the altar of Second Amendment idolatry … if the failure to take seriously climate change and the risk of nuclear annihilation hasn’t driven home the point … let us not equivocate or dither any longer about whether this nation evidences anything Christian about it. What we have is the absolute failure of powerful people who claim Jesus as their lord and savior to do even that most simplest of things that today’s scripture insists is the starting place for discipleship: Listen to him.

Hiroshima made it clear about who those who crave worldly power worship, no matter where they might go to church on Sunday. And for those among us who enable or benefit from or allow such power to be exercised, it is clear that we too have failed that most basic of asks that God begs of us: Listen to him.

I considered ending this homily right there. The anniversary of Hiroshima seems to require no easy out here, no quick turn to optimism or to hope. But the people that I met in Hiroshima, especially the hibakusha, the survivors of that terrible day, seem to, in the power of their witness for a nuclear-weapons-free world, to anticipate the very place where today’s scripture passage ends.

As the disciples cast their faces to the ground, frozen in fear – perhaps at remembering that part of what they were being asked to listen to from Jesus included his prediction of his arrest, torture and death awaiting him in Jerusalem, and that his disciples would also be asked to take up that Cross in order to follow him – Jesus’ words to them, maybe to us, are: “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

Standing up to the powerful, resisting injustice, confronting violence, casting our lot with the rejected, the threatened, the victims, the survivors, this is the evidence of what it means to listen to Jesus. And despite the fear such choices might invoke in us – what it may cost us, where it may lead us – Jesus stands before us, his disciples, touching us, saying: “Rise, and do not be afraid.” So here today – and every day – let us listen to him, then rise from these pews, and live out what we have heard as his disciples, knowing his touch and not being afraid.

8 thoughts on “Hiroshima, Nagasaki change forever how U.S. Christians observe the Transfiguration

  1. You pulled it all together in your homily, Johnny! Oh, that the world we live in would turn toward Christ and hear His message. May the Peace of the Nonviolent Christ be with you, dear peace brother.

  2. Johnny,
    What a powerful clarion call for protest on behalf of the peace absent from our city streets, our prisons, our borders. Oh let us be brave and clear as your words, The Word in our lives! Fast forward!

  3. Powerful words, and equally powerful reminder, Johnny. Indeed, so many of us have heard but haven’t really listened or heeded. Hopefully some who listened, heard.

  4. “So here today – and every day – let us listen to him, then rise from these pews, and live out what we have heard as his disciples, knowing his touch and not being afraid.”

    What would you say to people who believe that we would have to accept a form of slavery if we did not have nuclear weapons to help protect us? Is nonviolence good enough for defense? Should we be afraid of accepting slavery if we give up nuclear weapons?

  5. Dear William (Horan), may I be so bold as to suggest that we are already slaves to nuclear weapons. We bow and reverence them as our savior. May I also suggest that we all check out From Dictatorship to Democracy, A Conceptual Framework for [nonviolent] Liberation. It is a book-length essay on the generic problem of how to destroy a dictatorship and to prevent the rise of a new one. The book was written in 1993 by Gene Sharp (1928-2018), a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts. Here is the actual text for download, etc. It’s my understanding that it was a primary source for the Arab Spring.

  6. A beautifully written homily on the intersection of these two life changing events. What a stark contrast between the love and mercy of the blazing Transfiguration and the hate and violence of the flaming atomic bomb. This irony should not be lost on any of us.

Leave a Reply