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The Feast of the Transfiguration | By the Rev. Jim Pappas

One evening several years back, when my son Jamie was about five years old, I was sitting in my living room, enjoying the peace and quiet, futzing around on FaceBook on my laptop, and I came across a video that a friend had posted, a video of a flash mob. Usually, flash mobs seem to be about a dancing or something like that, but this flash mob was an orchestra performing the last several minutes of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the great “Ode to Joy” melody. It was happening in the square of some European city, but I’m not sure which one.

The whole thing started with just a bass player, standing in the middle of the town square with his big double bass, starting to bow off the first notes of that section of music. Now Jamie was in another room watching cartoons on TV. But the minute I hit play on that video and those first notes sounded out of my computer speakers, Jamie came bounding into the room and jumped into my lap and excitedly declared, “I know this song!” And he did. Just from those few notes of the bass part.He used to watch this cartoon called Little Einsteins that uses classical music a lot. I learned classical music from watching Bugs Bunny, he learned it from watching Little Einsteins.

But anyway… he declared, “I know this song!” and he was there with me in time for a cello player to come and sit down next to the bass and start playing along. And then when a violin player came out and began playing the first melody notes Jamie started to sing along. And then there were more violins and a bassoonist came out and French horns came out and they even wheeled timpani out. And in the video kids were climbing the light poles, trying to see, and parents were putting their children up on their shoulders and people were gathering around and before you know it there was a whole orchestra assembled playing this music and a choir out of nowhere singing this music and Jamie was in my lap singing this music and I began to weep. Tears just poured down my face.

Eventually the song ended and the people in the video applauded and Jamie looked up at me and smiled and gave me a hug and then ran back to the other room to his cartoons. And I just sat there and continued weeping. And eventually my wife Jennifer even looked over at me and asked, “Is something wrong?” But no, there was nothing wrong. I was simply overcome by the beauty of all of it – the beauty of the music, the beauty of the little child in my arms, the beauty of the people being brought together by beauty.

I used to think that Peter was wrong in our Transfiguration lesson – you know, that moment when Peter says, “Lord, it is good to be here! Let us build some booths and stay!” But I am starting to think that just maybe, Peter was right. He knew what was going on. He thought, “Ah, the beauty of this moment is what it is all about.” Peter knew that there was too much ugliness down off that mountain top, too much brokenness, and that that brokenness was not truly what life is all about. He wanted to stay in the beauty.

Back in the second century, St. Irenaeus, who was a bishop in what is now southern France, wrote, “Gloria Dei est vivens homo.” That translates as, “The glory of God is the living human.” We often translate it as, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive” because that’s really what Irenaeus was getting at, the idea that a person completely alive shows forth the beauty of God.

We often treat the Transfiguration story that we hear today as being about seeing God in Jesus. But the profound beauty is in seeing Jesus as a human being who is fully human in that moment. The glowing is not because he is somehow more than human. The glowing is because he has, in that moment, come completely into his own.

Peter and James and John and even Jesus are going to have to move away from this moment, back down the mountain, back out into the brokenness that they knew before this moment of beauty. But they will be ever changed by having experienced the beauty of being fully alive even if only for that moment. It will drive them, each in their own way, to give their lives fully for others so that others might experience beauty.

A few years ago, my family and I had the good fortune of visiting Manchester, England. While Jennifer attended an academic conference, Jamie and I went to the Museum of the University of Manchester. The University Museum is one of those classic jumbled collections for which the British Isles are known. Display cases rise from floor to ceiling and are chockablock full of taxidermy specimens, and pressed leaves and flowers, and fossils, and shells, and bones, and anthropological items, and on and on. The museum exists to showcase the marvels of the natural world and human development. And the collection is so overwhelming that it is impossible to take it all in in a single visit, even if you spend the whole day. But one of those large cases is almost empty. Suspended in the center of the case is a captivating piece of molten glass and twisted metal, no larger than the head of an infant or toddler. It is a piece of debris from the first use of an atomic bomb. Above that piece of debris hang little paper origami cranes.

On August 6, 1945, the Feast of the Transfiguration, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Somewhere between eighty thousand and one hundred forty-five thousand people, most of them civilians, died from that single bomb. Most of the airmen on the airplane that dropped the bomb were not even aware of what they were doing. They learned, as the people of Hiroshima did, when they saw the blinding light and the mushroom cloud. And as if the destruction wrought by the bomb that day was not enough, it was repeated three days later on the city of Nagasaki.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were transfigured by those blasts. Once vibrant cities were reduced to rubble like that piece of glass and metal in the display case of the museum. Once vibrant families were broken, even wiped out. And we and the rest of our world were transfigured as well. We have lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation since the fateful day of that first bomb. That day proved to us that not all transfiguration is beautiful. We humans have not only the power to create, but also the power to destroy, even to destroy ourselves.

But many have also been convinced by that day that we cannot take beauty for granted. The paper cranes that hang with the debris in that display case are a plea for peace and beauty. They spring from a tradition that began in the bed of a Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki who was suffering from leukemia caused by exposure to the radiation from the blast in Hiroshima. As she lay in her bed in hospital, she folded origami cranes as a sign of hope. Sadako ultimately succumbed to her leukemia, dying of it at the age of twelve, but others, inspired by her simple actions, refused to let her hope die. They began to make cranes as well and display them as a pledge that never again should human beings wreak such destruction. We are not made for brokenness; we are made for beauty.

Back in the thirteenth century, St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian, gave a series of lectures in Paris, and one of the things that he said in those lectures is, “Justice makes beautiful that which had been deformed.” Brokenness, ugliness, violence, degradation – these things deform humanity. But they are never the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, healing the sick, welcoming the stranger, forgiving those who wrong us, seeking to be peacemakers in the midst of the brokenness of the world – all of these are ways in which we restore the beauty of humanity.

All of us here today I hope are here, at least in part, because we have had moments like my moment of music on that now long ago evening, seeing beauty that overwhelmed us. And maybe we are here as well because we have experienced suffering so great that it causes us to long for beauty in our lives. But hopefully why we are here is about more than just seeing beauty and longing for it ourselves. Hopefully we are also here because we want to do something to extend that beauty to others, because we want our lives to be so transfigured, so changed, that we in our own turn shine.

When we are given the gift of beauty, when we give the gift of beauty, when we long for it, when we strive for it, when we refuse to rest with anything short of it, then we move closer to the kingdom of God, then we become the music that moves others to cry tears of joy. And through the music of our lives, others’ lives are changed and transfigured in glorious ways as well and the whole creation is restored to the beauty that reflects the One who creates us and loves us and calls us to walk together in beauty.

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