The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, August 5/6, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA ~ The Rev. Roy Almquist
We weren’t … just wishing on a star when we laid the facts out before you … We saw it with our own eyes: Jesus, resplendent with light from God the Father, as the voice of Majestic Glory spoke: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight.” We were there on the holy mountain with him. We heard the voice out of heaven with our very own ears. …
The prophetic Word was confirmed to us. You’ll do well to keep focusing on it. It’s the one light you have in a dark time as you wait for daybreak and the rising of the Morning Star in your hearts. (II Peter 1: 16-19 – Eugene Peterson, The Message)
Each year we hear the story of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday in the Epiphany season. Occasionally, when the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, falls on a Sunday, we get to trek up that mountain a second time. This year we are in luck … we get two trips up the mountain!
The account of the Transfiguration is common to all three Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and is referenced in First John and Second Peter. Today’s Gospel focuses on that critical event when Jesus journeyed to the top of Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John, and there his inner core of disciples experienced a manifestation of Christ’s glory, as Our Lord was joined by Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.
This mountaintop moment also included that great voice that comes from a cloud proclaiming Jesus as the Beloved Son with a command to listen to him. This was a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry and this holy mountain represents what the Celtic Christian tradition would call a thin place … a setting where, for a brief moment, earth and heaven are connected.
This is what the Church celebrates on August 6. But, in one of the great ironies of life and history, August 6 also represents something life-altering in a different way … like July 4, or December 7, or September 11. I know you did not expect a quiz today, but can you recall what historic event occurred on August 6?
On August 6 in 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. Three days later, our nation detonated a second bomb over Nagasaki. The world would never be the same again. Obviously, there were strategic reasons for this decision … clearly these terrible events ended the war, saving many American lives. But it also unleashed an unthinkable danger … some would say an evil power … that has cast a shadow over your life and mine and is as current as the latest outrageous posturing by Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
August 6 represents an alien legacy that we have given to our children and grandchildren and to the world. In many ways, the life-altering action of August 6 has created a fear and uncertainty that continues to distress and to divide people to the present time.
Some would argue that what we did that day was right. We took a step to defend our homeland and to remove our military forces from harm. We did what we needed to do to end a terrible war.
Others would insist that we crossed a line and will forever carry on our collective conscience the reality that we are the only nation to have ever used a nuclear weapon … we opened Pandora’s box!
I am convinced that these two distinct August 6 events say much about the world in which we live today.
For many, the light and the glow that transfigured Jesus on that mountaintop … enhanced by the voice of God: This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! … remain the defining events that shape us as Christians. I think it is critical for us to decide whether or not we can align our lives with the faith and commitment we associate with the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Are we in … or are we out!
For others, all that matters are strength and power; peace, gentleness and compassion are for sissies. Closely related to such a view is the sense that the most important thing one can possibly achieve is wealth … liquid power … the ability to control one’s destiny and to secure the lives of those we love.
Two bright lights cast a glow on our contemporary world …
One is the glow of military power and the glow of gold … the promise that strength and wealth can bring us victory and control, joy and happiness.
The other is the glow from the holy mountain … the radiance of Jesus Christ that shines, dare we say transfigures our hearts and our lives, motivating us to live in a way that matters and blesses others.
Some people insist that these two glows can peacefully co-exist. They argue that military strength and the wealth of our nation can easily be integrated with the light and the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Others would say: No, these lights are incompatible. Christians are called to be in this world, but not of this world!
The painful truth is that Christianity is in decline in our nation. People seem to be voting for the glow of wealth and power. I consider this a great sadness, not simply because I love the Church, but because I believe that the Church has the ability to be … and has been in the past … a great blessing to the general society. The cultured secularists who have no time for the Church fail to appreciate the great contributions made by Christian people within American society … from higher education to health care institutions to the maintenance of moral values and decency.
Nevertheless, Americans are falling away from the Church in unprecedented numbers today. One out of three millennials expresses no identity with any religious tradition. Older people give lip service to having faith but do little in their daily behavior to indicate any connection with that glow from the mountaintop! Once we could take pride in the fact that in America, people still go to church. Now we must acknowledge that we are becoming more like our European counterparts.
Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, has observed what he calls the rise of moralistic therapeutic deism, a kind of pseudo-religiosity that has abandoned traditional faith and worship in favor of a happy, feel-good-about-yourself sense that goes well with our self-obsessed, consumerist American culture. This, however, is a far cry from Christianity! Churches telling their people how to vote, a symptom of this trend to blend faith with political power, may have an immediate appeal, but it is most certainly encouraging a stampede away from the Church on the part of many thinking people.
Today we remember August 6 ~ the Feast of the Transfiguration ~ a significant day in the Church Calendar but also an epic moment in history. May the glow on the mountain be a source of inspiration to us, encouraging us to cling to our faith in the midst of those other glows that cast light and shadows on our future.
And the voice said: This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! Amen.
[Some thoughts and inspiration came from Rod Dreher's article, Trump Can’t Save American Christianity, The New York Times, August 2, 2017]