In November 2019, Pope Francis spoke at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Reflecting on that tragic day in 1945, when “in an incandescent burst of lightning and fire, so many men and women” were reduced to nothing more than “shadows and silence”, Francis made an impassioned plea for a future without the mutually assured destruction of nuclear arms.
‘Indeed, if we really want to build a more just and secure society, we must let the weapons fall from our hands … A true peace can only be an unarmed peace.’
Pope Francis was speaking from the very heart of the Church’s moral tradition, a tradition that echoes Christ’s words on the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Happy are the peacemakers, they shall be called sons of God’ (Matthew 5:9). Fascinatingly, some of the world’s most passionate peacemakers in this regard have been the survivors of the atomic bomb – in Japan they are referred to as the hibakusha. They are the people – severely dwindling in number now – who for years have been campaigning for the reduction of nuclear warheads around the world.
Pope Francis revisited this theme of war in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, urging us to ‘look at reality through [the] eyes’ of war’s victims; only then can we truly ‘grasp the abyss of evil at the heart of war’ (§261). Human violence does nothing but disfigure: it disfigures ourselves and it disfigures others. Very often it involves the sacrifice of innocent victims as fundamental to its logic.
What is so interesting is that August 6, the day of the memorial for Hiroshima, is also the day on which we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration. On this day we have held in stark contrast an event of incredible Transfiguration and one of horrific disfiguration.
The Transfiguration is, as many people have pointed out, a moment of revelation for the disciples. Having just confessed Christ as Lord (Luke 9:21), Peter, James and John go up the mountain with Jesus in order to pray, and there they see him in ‘glory’: ‘his clothing became brilliant as lightning’ (9:30).
What is often missed in this event is the sacrificial allusions. Theologian James Alison talks about this in his book Jesus, the Forgiving Victim (2013). In the Old Testament, part of the Levitical rite of sacrifice involved the priest clothing himself in a brilliant white garment or tunic. When he emerged from the Holy of Holies, he would be wearing the priestly tiara that had the tetragrammaton on it – the name of God, YHWH – and cufflinks that bore the same. Part of the reason behind this is because the priest was, in some ways, acting “in the person of God”. When he donned the garments, it was no longer the priest coming out to cleanse the people but God himself.
This is something we should be familiar with since liturgically we do something quite similar: the priest dons a white garment beneath his colours, acting for the sake of the rite in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. It is not the priest as a man doing the rite but Christ himself as symbolised by the clothes covering him. This is the New Covenant fulfillment of the Old Covenant rite.
All the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration depict Jesus’ clothing appearing in brilliant white. This is the revelation of Jesus as being a walking manifestation of the presence of God, come to free his people from the bonds of sin and death. Naturally, the disciples want to stay for this moment of glory, for this part of the “rite”, but the rite isn’t over yet. The next part is the sacrifice. Hence, when Jesus descends the mountain with them, they head straight for Jerusalem where the sacrifice will take place. This is something Jesus repeatedly warns the disciples about along the way. The difference in this new rite, of course, is that Jesus himself becomes the victim who takes away our sins.
This is, arguably, one of the distinguishing factors of Christian religious belief: that God himself became the victim in the person of Christ. This is also one of the reasons behind Christian peacemaking: the logic of crucifixion is in some ways the same as the logic of some acts of war – sacrifice innocents in order to secure peace and victory. But since our God is the one who became that victim, who was sacrificed for the perceived “greater good”, we cannot do the same. Our part must always be with those who are victims, with those who suffer.
One of the questions we must ask ourselves is whether or not we’re willing to leave the safety of the mountaintop – of our personal intimacy with Jesus (as important as that is) – in order to walk the way of the cross on behalf of others.
This day of Transfiguration, and with it the memory of horrific disfiguration, can be an opportunity to recommit ourselves to Christian peacemaking, something that is especially important in a time as divided and conflicting as ours.
Melbourne Catholic29 February 2024
Melbourne Catholic28 February 2024