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Hope of transfiguration

by
05 August 2022

David Bunch marks an anniversary of disfiguring and transformation

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The Peace Flame memorial in Hiroshima

The Peace Flame memorial in Hiroshima

TOMORROW, the festival of the Transfiguration commemorates Jesus’s taking James, John, and Peter up a mountain, where they saw Jesus’s face shine like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. He talked with Elijah and Moses, and a voice from a bright cloud declared Jesus to be a beloved Son who should be listened to. Terrified, the three witnesses then saw only Jesus, who told them not to be afraid (Matthew 17.1-8; Mark 9.2-8; Luke 9. 28-36).

On the same date, in 1945, a United States plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It destroyed about 70 per cent of infrastructure and killed 135,000 people either instantly or later, owing to radiation. The impact on others — and on pets, wildlife, and natural habitat — was devastating and widespread. (Three days later, on 9 August, the United States dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, with similar consequences.) Today, in Hiroshima, a “Peace Flame” remains lit until all nuclear weapons have been destroyed.

One theologian who explained the significance of these contrasting events was Kenneth Leech. In a sermon preached on 7 August 2005, at St Ann’s, Manchester (the text was published by the Sisters of the Love of God in their Fairacres Chronicle), he contended that, on the holy mountain, “It was the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ which was revealed and, by implication, the potential glory of human beings made in God’s image.”

At Hiroshima, Leech suggested, the revelation was of human potential for destruction, cruelty, and incalculable violence: “The mushroom cloud of Hiroshima was a kind of demonic antitype to the cloud of transfiguration; it could be described as a cloud of cosmic disfiguration — of God’s ‘beloved sons and daughters’, as of the earth itself.” Each event, he maintained, told a story about humanity’s potential for good and evil.

 

LEECH took as read both the historicity and the meaning of the biblical event. So far as the former is concerned, Matthew and Luke differed in some details but otherwise followed Mark’s account in reporting — with Old Testament allusions and symbolism — the awesome essence of what they heard had transpired. The author of 2 Peter 1.16-19 also claimed to have witnessed the glory on the mountain.

As for the second point, Leech reflected mainstream scholarship in accepting that the Transfiguration applied not only to Jesus, but also to us, referring to 2 Corinthians 3.18: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Leech went further. First, he argued, transfiguration precedes resurrection, occurring despite perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding: it is “in the midst of the common life, not apart from it, that we experience the glory which dominates this feast”. This is surely true. For many, glimpses of glory can appear during the mess and muddle of daily life — in family, friendships, leisure, prayer, work, and worship; momentarily, too, through literature, nature, performing arts, and the sciences.

Second, for Leech, the hope of glory requires movement towards the Kingdom of God by encountering evil, injustice, and frailty. This is particularly relevant for today’s world. A resurgent nuclear-arms race, biological and chemical warfare, and military invasions: these are ever-present catastrophes. So, too, are climate change and other environmental disasters, displaced peoples, and extremes of health, income, and wealth.

Often, these and other injustices are rooted in discrimination, greed, hate, or xenophobia. From the Church and its members they require a persistent and robust challenge, working with those from other faiths and none to confront, reduce, and, ultimately, eradicate them.

 

AS LEECH recognised, however, Christian political strictures must be set in the context of preaching — and witnessing to — the Good News. In a book praised by Leech, Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote that the people of the world “must be led to the Christian faith not as a panacea of progress nor as an otherworldly solution unrelated to history, but as a Gospel of Transfiguration” (The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (1950).

The same applies to individual Christians as they seek to transfigure personal lives and communal activities through prayer and worship. As another text quoted by Leech puts it: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12.2).

Leech, who died in 2015, was preaching 17 years ago, but his sermon remains valid. In heeding his words, and acting on them, Christians can help repair the disfiguration of God’s world and people, and journey towards a transfigured time when “Nation shall not lift sword up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2.4). Then, at last, the Hiroshima “Peace Flame” can be permanently extinguished.

Dr David Bunch studied theology and ministry at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and King’s College, London. With Canon Angus Ritchie, he edited Prayer and Prophecy: The essential Kenneth Leech (Seabury Books, 2009).

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