“What’s happening today in American society is the label of Christian is being applied to forces that are really deeply unchristian and certainly within the Catholic community, are very much in violation of our Catholic social teaching,” says Walter Modrys, reflecting on the challenge that preachers face today when their homilies touch on neuralgic political issues. “You don’t have a right to label it Christian unless it really meets a very high standard that is reflective of the gospels.”
Walter Modrys is a Jesuit priest of the U.S.A. East Province of the Jesuits. He describes his present state of life as retired but still holds down five jobs, including one as co-host of “believe. teach. practice,” a preaching podcast.
Listen to Walter’s homily for the Solemnity of the Feast of the Transfiguration, Year A, on this week’s episode of “Preach.” After the homily, Walter shares with host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., what drew him to make connections between the glorious feast of the Transfiguration and the unspeakable tragedy of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
The label of Christian is being applied to forces that are really deeply unchristian and very much in violation of our Catholic social teaching
Scripture Readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Year A
First Reading: Dn 7:9-10, 13-14
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 97:1-2, 5-6, 9
Second Reading: 2 Pt 1:16-19
Gospel: Mt 17:1-9
You can find the full text of the readings here.
Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Year A by Walter Modrys, S.J.
It’s just a coincidence, to be sure. But sometimes a coincidence can shed an unexpected light on experience. The feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated every year on August the 6th. That date also marks the anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb in warfare, the bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, that inflicted tens of thousands of civilian casualties and led to the end of World War II.
Those two events, the Transfiguration in the Gospel, and the bombing of Hiroshima, for some reason have always been linked in my imagination. I suspect it’s more than just the coincidence of falling on the same day of the year. Such opposite events. What possibly could they have in common?
In his 30-day spiritual retreat program, called the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius Loyola proposes a meditation. He entitled it the “Two Standards” meditation. It’s filled with bizarre baroque imagery, so reflective of Ignatius’ sixteenth century culture. He imagines Christ standing on a great field near Jerusalem. And Lucifer on another field in the region of Babylon. Though I get the contrast, I have no idea how to picture the region of Babylon, nor of Jerusalem for that matter. It gets worse. Lucifer issues a summons to innumerable demons. He scatters them throughout the world, to cast out nets and chains to imprison helpless victims. Well, you see what I mean. It sounds like the screenplay for a horror movie.
The challenge is not to duplicate Ignatius’ imaginative vision. No doubt he’s on to something deeper than that.
The challenge is not to duplicate Ignatius’ imaginative vision. No doubt he’s on to something deeper than that. I wonder if my fascination with the dual anniversaries of August 6th is a modern version of Ignatius’ Two Standards meditation.
Now the bomb needed to be tested before it could be used in war. As we know, it worked perfectly. The blast early that morning in the desert in New Mexico was like nothing that had ever been witnessed before. The light was like the sun. The heat melted the sand into glass. The explosion knocked over everything in its path.
Robert Oppenheimer is credited with producing the bomb as the head of a team of brilliant scientists. He was a brilliant physicist himself, but troubled in spirit. A deeply sensitive man, even today the focus of some popular attention. A film recounting his life has just been released. As the story goes, while witnessing the explosion, Oppenheimer quoted a verse from a Hindu poem. It read:
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky,
that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.
An explosion so awesome, it evoked an image of other worldly power. Dare we say, like that of God.
One can sense how the literary talents of the evangelists were challenged, trying adequately to describe the Transfiguration event.
Years later, Oppenheimer would explain that another verse had also entered his head at the time, another quotation from Hindu literature:
I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
One month after the successful test, the awesome power was unleashed a few hundred feet over a defenseless city and thousands of human beings were instantly incinerated. People mark the day as the beginning of a new world, they say. The nuclear age they call it. Nuclear weapons may someday destroy the world, at least as we know it. Indeed, the powerful blast, with light that no one could observe unprotected without going instantly blind, was now in our possession.
Well, so much for the bomb. What about the Transfiguration?
One can sense how the literary talents of the evangelists were challenged, trying adequately to describe the Transfiguration event. “His face shone like the sun,” they say, “and his clothes became white as light.” A bright cloud, we are told, cast a shadow over the witnesses. Hardly a nuclear blast, to be sure. But curious how the writers appeal to the same basic imagery, unwittingly drawing a comparison. Both scenes conjure up other-worldly perspectives. Some spectacular phenomenon has intruded into human experience. But what does it mean?
Four years ago, Pope Francis visited Nagasaki, the second city that suffered a nuclear attack a few days after Hiroshima.
Today reminds us that the Transfiguration is a vision that points to Christ’s resurrection and his victory over death. Today also reminds us of the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction, an invention that may bring about the end of human civilization. We become like Christ, as St. Paul reminded us, or we become like death, the destroyer of worlds, as Oppenheimer warned.
Well four years ago, Pope Francis visited Nagasaki, the second city that suffered a nuclear attack a few days after Hiroshima. The time was in November, so the Pope had no reason to mention the Feast of Transfiguration. But he implicitly appealed to the Ignatian meditation, the Two Standards. He spoke of the “perverse dichotomy” that marks our world. Peace and international stability, he said, are incompatible with the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation.
The two poles of the dichotomy couldn’t be more opposite. Peace and international stability on the one hand, and mutual destruction and total annihilation on the other. Those are the opposites. The modern correlates for the plains of Jerusalem and Babylon?
Despite the stark contrast, it’s surprising how much the “perverse dichotomy” of Pope Francis pervades our experience. In one form or another, it plagues most dimensions of our lives. That’s why it’s such a valuable tool for discernment. We can learn a lot by comparing the opposites because, paradoxically, we frequently confuse the two poles of the dichotomy.
The confusion arises when we resort to force, claiming that we are really striving for peace – whether in international affairs or as a way of policing our cities or coping with our own personal issues in life. The voice from heaven to follow Christ is drowned out by the violently disrupting sound of an explosion detonated or a gun going off. The unheeded cries of the poor protesting injustice are shouted down by a mob fearing their loss of privilege.
The voice from heaven to follow Christ is drowned out by the violently disrupting sound of an explosion detonated or a gun going off.
To confiscate weapons of mass destruction – which didn’t exist – we invaded Iraq – against the better judgment of many. At the same time, our country nurtures our own nuclear arsenal – the warheads and delivery vehicles – as if such weapons can secure long term peace for mankind. We confuse weapons of mass destruction with authentic instruments of peace. Many, claiming to be Christians, rely more on the light from a nuclear blast than on their faith in the transfigured Christ.
The greatest sin arises, however, when we actually substitute one pole for the other. We falsely claim that the blinding light and the destructive blast are appearances of a salvific force because we naively assume we can contain the evil it inflicts. Then we willfully take the side of the weapon – with its display of other-worldly power.
It’s not just nuclear weapons, however. We arm our citizenry, claiming that guns keep us safe more than the values we share and the mutual respect in which we hold one another.
In our cities, unarmed civilians are beaten and sometimes killed by police in a wrong-headed effort to protect public safety.
We impose capital punishment to bring closure and to console tragically injured parties, sometimes learning later that the executed victim was actually innocent of the crime.
We separate and turn away families seeking asylum from violent gangs and exploitative governments to control our border and protect our homeland from harm.
But this resort to force sometimes conceals the actual violence at its core. It’s the unrelenting quest for power over others through manipulating our political institutions or accumulating vast economic resources in the hands of a few.
We weaponize our faith, claiming that Christian faith is our national possession. Then our political and social aspirations – distorted as they are by self-interest and prejudice – are falsely conflated with the promised Kingdom of God on earth.
All these are instances of one side of the dichotomy employed at the expense of the other. Violence is favored over peace. Exploitation instead of justice. Consumption preferred over conservation. Indeed a perverse dichotomy.
Looked at this way, bringing together the vision of Transfiguration and the anniversary of Hiroshima makes today a challenging day indeed. It puts the stark choice before us between life and death, love and hate, freedom, and slavery. May God’s grace inspire us to choose rightly.