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Catholic Church of the Beatitudes: Hiroshima and Feast of Transfiguration Calling Us to ‘Wake Up!’

When the date Aug. 6 made its annual return this month, I was struck like never before by the incongruity of two observances associated with that date. We in the Santa Barbara’s Beatitudes community were celebrating, at our usual Saturday 4:30 p.m. liturgy, the Feast of the Transfiguration. That was a peak moment when Jesus’ “shining like the sun” was witnessed by several of his followers. But something else occurred on the same date 71 years ago that was as far from joyful as one can get: the atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima.

Small wonder that the lyrics of the song "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof come to mind when contemplating this day in history. Indeed, it is “laden with happiness and tears.”

Let’s be honest. The Christian claim to Aug. 6 as a Holy Day (a Feast) predates by centuries the U.S. military’s appropriation of the same date for its frightful mission. Yes, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a sacrilege — an insult to the many forms of life we should hold as sacred, especially humankind.

Why on earth did our military planners mar the Feast of the Transfiguration by dropping their infernal bomb on that day? Were they tone deaf? Or ignorant? Or was this somehow just a tragic coincidence?

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the whole world knows about Hiro­shima Day and still shudders at the thought of it. May its memory never fade!

The biblical event (Matthew 17:1-6; Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:28-36) we call the Transfiguration, on the other hand? I doubt if one in a hundred ordinary folks could tell you what the word means, despite its place on the Calendar of Christian Feasts. I’ll wager that not even the inclusion of “Transfiguration” studies in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has increased public awareness of the meaning of the original Christian feast day.

Ironically, a few months ago, the U.S. government accused Dennis Apel, a gentle soul who serves mostly the immigrant families of Guadalupe, of trespassing on its sacred space, so to speak, when he crossed the green line at the entrance to Vandenberg Air Force Base to protest ongoing ICBM refinement and testing. Today, I accuse the U.S. military of having trespassed on our sacred time (as Christians) when it selected Aug. 6, 1945, as the day to obliterate Hiroshima with an atomic bomb.

Both events were over-the-top in their way. In the Transfiguration of Jesus, he was revealed as being at one with the ineffable, unimaginable, blindingly beautiful presence of God — the very God whom we call pure Love. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Jesus was understood to be the embodiment of God’s love for the whole human race. So beautiful! So affirming! So breathtaking!

The vaporizing of Hiroshima was breathtaking, too. It shattered skulls, seared skin, collapsed lungs, incinerated children, smashed homes and literally sucked the oxygen out of the air above a major city. It killed 140,000 civilians and more than 20,000 soldiers. Our armed forces dropped another such bomb three days later in Nagasaki, killing 80,000 more. These were offensive weapons. They still offend.

It’s too facile to say that our airmen were “just following orders.” This was nothing short of genocide with the threat of more to come!

“America, America, God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control.” This is what Katharine Lee Bates wrote in her 1895 song "America the Beautiful." Seems like our leaders ignored those righteous words 50 years later, in 1945.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, called our bombing of Hiroshima the anti-transfiguration and said that, in effect, we have rejected Jesus’ loving nonviolence and created our own demonic light — our own false god. The blinding flash that we lifted up as our new idol really did blind those whom it did not kill by heat or blast. It was unmitigated evil. And yet, at the time, some Americans were pleased with themselves for having done such a deed.

The cloud that we caused to overshadow Hiroshima, unlike the luminous, numinous glow of God’s presence on the mount of the Transfiguration, was a giant, dark mushroom of death. It carried deadly radioactive ashes for miles downwind. Instead of bringing us joy and reconciliation, as Jesus’ Transfiguration did, our military-industrial leaders brought us just the opposite. They uncorked the nuclear genie — a dangerous monster that we can’t seem to put back in the bottle, even after decades of trying.

Why don’t Christian communities repurpose Aug. 6, making it a Universal Day of Atonement and Reflection? Why don’t we celebrate our Feast of the Transfiguration on some other date — one not so associated with tragedy? It has been a long time since I saw black vestments being worn in a Catholic Church. Maybe we need to make a statement and bring those somber garments back each year on Aug. 6 to show the world that we remember — and we regret.

There have been many prophetic voices since that day in 1945, many Jonahs calling us to nuclear sanity, calling on us in good faith to pursue nuclear disarmament. Could we take a lesson from the legend of Jonah visiting Nineveh? Might we actually listen to our prophets when they warn us of hell to pay if we don’t change our ways? Could we muster the courage to repent of the nuclear sins of our forefathers?

Alas, alas! I feel that my generation has outdone itself pursuing just the opposite: refining nuclear weapons and their delivery systems! And Vandenberg is part of that whole frightful process.

For me, Hiroshima Day will always stand in tragic counterpoint to the Feast of the Transfiguration. A few of the disfigured victims of Aug. 6, 1945, mostly women, are still around to remind us of what we did wrong. We have come to know them as the Hibakusha. Soon none will be left.

David Krieger alerts us to the passing of that generation with his poem “Wake Up!” in his anthology of the same name, page 66:

The alarm is sounding.
Can you hear it?

Can you hear the bells
of Nagasaki
ringing out for peace?

Can you feel the heartbeat
of Hiroshima
pulsing out for life?

The survivors of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki
are growing older.

Their message is clear:
never again!

Wake up!
Now, before the feathered arrow
is placed into the bow.

Now, before the string
of the bow is pulled taut,
the arrow poised for flight.

Now, before the arrow is let loose,
before it flies across oceans
and continents.

Now, before we are engulfed in flames,
while there is still time, while we still can,
Wake up!

Thomas Heck is a member of and music minister for the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 4:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author. "Wake Up!" by David Krieger is reproduced with permission.

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