“In the very depths of our grief…”

We continue our quest for Jesus on the anniversary of the day thousands were killed in a blaze of light in Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. And we continue to ask how the mysterious event we call the “Transfiguration” of Christ on Mt. Tabor — when he seemed to his apostles to be transformed, for a moment, into a being, not of ordinary flesh, but of light — could be related to these war-ending events, and indeed, to all human suffering
By Robert Moynihan

“Sakebi Hiroshima, inori no Nagasaki” — “Shouting Hiroshima, praying Nagasaki” 

I left off my last email on the anniversary of the atom bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ by saying there was nothing more to say — only silence.

But I was wrong. There is more to say.

I received many letters about the newsflash. Several echoed the words of one correspondent: “I don’t see a connection in your story on Hiroshima that relates to Jesus, whom you say is your subject.”

And one said, “Your far better story would have been in Nagasaki.”

Several defended the use of the bomb, arguing that in August 1945, the question of the bomb was the strategic one of ending the war and saving lives, particularly American lives.

I hope that it is not necessary to say that I am in favor of saving every possible human life.

Pope Pius XII at the time himself condemned the bombings, expressing a view in keeping with the traditional Roman Catholic position that “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.”

And the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano commented in its August 7, 1945, issue: “This war provides a catastrophic conclusion. Incredibly this destructive weapon remains as a temptation for posterity, which, we know by bitter experience, learns so little from history.”

One writer brought to my attention the story of a Catholic doctor who died in Nagasaki due to the effects of the bombing. His name was Dr. Takashi Nagai.

And his story, in a way I had not anticipated, connected this bombing to the Feast of the Transfiguration, and to Christ, more closely and directly than even I had thought.

The Bombing of Nagasaki

Nagasaki was not the primary intended target on August 9; Kokura was.  Kokura was a smaller city.  The exact intended target was Kokura Arsenal, the biggest arms factory in western Japan, which produced missiles, aircraft, and weaponry for the army, and also chemical weapons. Some 57,000 people would have been killed by a blast there, it was estimated in Japan.

But there was cloud cover, including from a previous incendiary attack.
Nagasaki was the backup site, not because of civilian population, which was on the south side of the city, but because of the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works north of that, and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works even further north.
Decades after the attacks, there is a saying in Japan about the reporting on the anniversaries of the events: “sakebi Hiroshima, inori no Nagasaki” — “shouting Hiroshima, praying Nagasaki.”
Why praying Nagasaki?
Because there is a directly religious connection which emerged after the Nagasaki bombing.
At the last moment in the clouds over Nagasaki, intending to drop the much more complex plutonium bomb, “Fat Man,” on a radar fix, the bombardier caught a brief glimpse of land and dropped Fat Man.
Intended for the Mitsubishi arsenal targets, the bomb missed by over a mile and hit squarely over the Catholic suburb of Uragami.
The Uragami cathedral, which could hold 5,000 Catholics, burst into flames at  midnight that night and was consumed.
Urakami was where secret Christians had historically assembled, but were discovered in the 1860s and jailed. US President Ulysses S. Grant demanded these Christians be released for a simple reason — that a nation that did not respect religious freedom could not be considered “enlightened.” The freed farmers then built Urakami Cathedral.
But how did Nagasaki become “inori no Nagasaki,” “praying Nagasaki”? The book A Song for Nagasaki tells us.
In a testimonial on the back cover, Shusako Endo, himself a Catholic convert from atheism, writes, “Christians and non-Christians alike were deeply moved by [Dr. Takashi] Nagai’s faith in Christ that made him like Job of the Scriptures: in the midst of the nuclear wilderness he kept his heart in tranquility and peace, neither bearing resentment against any man nor cursing God.’ ”
Nagai was a physician, the head of radiology at a hospital, and already weak and suffering from radiation exposure. At his hospital the morning of the bomb, he was spared. Returning to his home, he found the ashes of his wife. His children had left for a distant point in the mountains and were spared.  He continued his work at his own peril, gradually declining, then bed-ridden, where he continued his writing. His book The Bells of Nagasaki is well known in Japan, and the movie that followed. The praying memorial in Nagasaki is taken from the influence of Dr. Nagai.
Here is what he once delivered in a speech to his fellow residents, taken from A Song for Nagasaki:
“I have heard that the atom bomb… was destined for another city. Heavy clouds rendered that target impossible, and the American crew headed for the secondary target, Nagasaki. Then a mechanical problem arose, and the bomb was dropped further north than planned and burst right above the cathedral…  It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?
“We are inheritors of Adam’s sin… of Cain’s sin. He killed his brother. Yes, we have forgotten we are God’s children. We have turned to idols and forgotten love. Hating one another, killing one another, joyfully killing one another! At last the evil and horrific conflict came to an end,  but mere repentance was not enough for peace…  We had to offer a stupendous sacrifice…  Cities had been leveled. But even that was no enough… Only this hansai [holocaust] on His altar… so that many millions of lives might be saved.
“How noble, how splendid, was that holocaust of midnight August 9, when flames soared up from the cathedral, dispelling darkness and bringing the light of peace [the emperor is said to have given his agreement in Tokyo for peace at the exact time the Urakami cathedral burst into flames]. In the very depths of our grief, we were able to gaze up to something beautiful, pure, and sublime.
“Happy are those who weep; they shall be comforted. We must walk the way of reparation… ridiculed, whipped, punished for our crimes, sweaty and bloody.  But we can turn our minds to Jesus carrying his Cross up the hill to Calvary… The Lord has given; the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Let us be thankful that Nagasaki was chosen for the whole burnt sacrifice! Let us be thankful that through this sacrifice, peace was granted to the world and religious freedom to Japan.”
The Nagai museum now stands beside the bare one-room hut, named Nyokodo, where Nagai was moved in the spring of 1948. He was known as the Ghandi of Nyokodo.

The Priests Who Survived the Atomic Bomb

My attention has also been drawn to an interesting report by Donal Anthony Foley in England’s Catholic Herald on August 5, which recounts the remarkable survival of the Jesuit Fathers in Hiroshima and which connects the bombing with the story of Fatima. Here are excerpts:

By Donal Anthony Foley on Thursday, 5 August 2010
This Friday, August 6, will see the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated in the Church. It commemorates the occasion when Christ, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, went up a high mountain – traditionally identified with Mount Tabor in Galilee – and was there “transfigured” before them, so that “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as light” (Mt 17:2).The Greek word for transfiguration is metemorphothe, from which we get the word “metamorphosis”. So the Transfiguration was a complete and stunning change in the appearance of Jesus… Its purpose was to prepare them for the reality of the crucifixion, so that having once seen – in some sense – his divinity, they would be strengthened in their faith.
August 6 is also an important date in world history: the fateful day on which the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. On that day, a Monday, at 8.15 in the morning, an American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, dropped its bomb “Little Boy”, which… vaporised practically everything and everyone within a radius of about a mile of the point of impact…
But in the midst of this terrible carnage, something quite remarkable happened: there was a small community of Jesuit Fathers living in a presbytery near the parish church, which was situated less than a mile away from detonation point, well within the radius of total devastation. And all eight members of this community escaped virtually unscathed from the effects of the bomb. Their presbytery remained standing, while the buildings all around, virtually as far as the eye could see, were flattened.
Fr Hubert Schiffer, a German Jesuit, was one of these survivors, aged 30 at the time of the explosion, and who lived to the age of 63 in good health. In later years he travelled to speak of his experience, and this is his testimony as recorded in 1976, when all eight of the Jesuits were still alive. On August 6 1945, after saying Mass, he had just sat down to breakfast when there was a bright flash of light.
Since Hiroshima had military facilities, he assumed there must have been some sort of explosion at the harbour, but almost immediately he recounted: “A terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunderstroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me [and] whirled me round and round…” He raised himself from the ground and looked around, but could see nothing in any direction. Everything had been devastated.
He had a few quite minor injuries, but nothing serious, and indeed later examinations at the hands of American army doctors and scientists showed that neither he nor his companions had suffered ill-effects from radiation damage or the bomb. Along with his fellow Jesuits, Fr Schiffer believed “that we survived because we were living the message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the rosary daily in that home”…
After this first bombing, the Japanese government refused to surrender unconditionally, and so a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki three days later on August 9. Nagasaki had actually been the secondary target, but cloud cover over the primary target, Kokura, saved it from obliteration on the day. The supreme irony is that Nagasaki was the city where two-thirds of the Catholics in Japan were concentrated, and so after centuries of persecution they suffered this terrible blow right at the end of the war.
But in a strange parallel to what happened at Hiroshima, the Franciscan Friary established by St Maximilian Kolbe in Nagasaki before the war was likewise unaffected by the bomb which fell there. St Maximilian, who was well-known for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, had decided to go against the advice he had been given to build his friary in a certain location. When the bomb was dropped, the friary was protected from the force of the bomb by an intervening mountain. So both at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can see Mary’s protective hand at work.
The apparitions at Fatima in Portugal took place in 1917, when from May to October three young children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, saw the Blessed Virgin six times, culminating in the “miracle of the sun” on October 13, when 70,000 people saw the sun spin in the sky and change colour successively, before falling to the earth in a terrifying manner. Many of those present thought it was the end of the world, but the sun reassumed its place in the sky to great cries of relief.
The essence of the Fatima message concerns conversion from sin and a return to God, and involves reparation for one’s own sins and the sins of others, as well as the offering up of one’s daily sufferings and trials. There was also a focus on prayer and the Eucharist at Fatima, and particularly the rosary, as well as the Five First Saturdays devotion, which involves Confession, Holy Communion, the rosary and meditation, for five consecutive months with the intention of making reparation to Our Lady (for more details visit Theotokos.org.uk).
It’s interesting to reflect, then, on the theme of “transfiguration” which links these various events. Christ’s face shone like the sun on Mount Tabor, and at Fatima, Our Lady worked the great miracle of the sun to convince the huge crowd which had gathered there that the message she was giving to mankind was authentic. Consider, too, that the poor people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered as man-made “suns” exploded in their midst causing horrific devastation. But at Hiroshima the eight Jesuits, who were living the message of Fatima, and particularly the daily rosary, were somehow “transfigured,” protected by God’s divine power, from the terrible effects of the bomb.
Surely there is a message here for all of us, that living the message of Fatima, in a world which grows ever more dangerous, and which is still threatened by nuclear war, is as profound a necessity for us as it was for Fr Schiffer and his companions.
(end Foley story)

“The ruined tabernacle of human nature”

Strikingly, this does connect with what Pope Benedict XVI writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth.
In that book, Benedict devotes several dense pages to an analysis of the meaning of Christ’s Transfiguration (pp. 305-318). I will try to summarize here what he says.
First, Benedict notes that all three Synoptic Gospels “create a link between Peter’s confession [when Peter declares that Jesus is “the messiah, the son of the living God”] and the Transfiguration by means of a reference to time.”
(The Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and sometimes in the exact same wording. Scholars believe that these Gospels share the same point of view, that they “see together.” The term “synoptic” comes from the Greek syn, meaning “together”, and optic, meaning “seen”. The Apocryphal Gospels, as well as the canonical Gospel of John, differ considerably from the Synoptic Gospels.)
This means, Benedict says, that “the two events, in each of which Peter plays a prominent role, are interrelated.”
He adds: “In both cases, the appearance of his [Christ’s] glory is connected with the cross.”
“Jesus’ divinity belongs with the Cross — only when we put these two together do we recognize Jesus correctly,” the Pope writes.
Benedict then delves deeply into the time references associated with the Transfiguration, trying to determine when the Transfiguration actually occurred.
To make a long story short, he concludes that Jesus’ Transfiguration took place on the last day of the great Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which was in the early fall.
So, the Transfiguration of Christ most likely occurred on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Booths, or Sukkot, in Hebrew.
The Hebrew word sukkot is the plural of sukkah, “booth, tabernacle.” The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the ancient Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
Throughout the holiday the sukkah becomes the living area of the house, and all meals are eaten in it.
According to Zechariah, in the messianic era Sukkot will become a universal festival for all mankind and all nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there.
“All Jewish feasts contain three dimensions,” the Pope writes. “They originate from celebrations of nature religion and thus tell of Creator and creation; they then become remembrances of God’s action in history; finally, they go on from there to become feasts of hope, which strain forward to meet the Lord who is coming, the Lord in whom God’s saving action in history is fulfilled, thereby reconciling the whole of creation.”
So the feast recalls the tents in the desert — and looks forward to the messianic age of peace.
Jesus went up to the mountaintop (Mt. Tabor) for a reason: “to pray,” (Luke 9:28).
Luke continues: “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)
Here the Pope gives a marvelous summary: “The Transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks to the Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus himself is ‘light from light.’ The reality that he is in the deepest core of his being, which Peter tries to express in his confession [i.e., the son of God] — that reality becomes perceptible to the sense at this moment.”
The Pope notes the difference between this light and the light that lit up Moses’ face when he came down off the mountain (see Exodus 34:29-35). He writes: “Because Moses has been talking with God, God’s light streams upon him and makes him radiant. But the light that causes him to shine comes upon him from the outside, so to speak. Jesus, however, shines from within…”
Can human beings participate in this light? The Pope says, “Yes.”
He writes: “Through Baptism, we are clothed with Jesus in light, and we ourselves become light.”
At this point, the Pope notes, Moses and Elijah appear. They talk with Jesus. He notes the meaning of their appearance: the law and the prophets are speaking with Jesus, and of Jesus.
But what are Moses and Elijah saying to him, and of him?
“Only Luke tells us,” the Pope writes. “They ‘appeared in glory and spoke of his departure [his exodus], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.'” (Luke 9:31)
This means, their topic of conversation is the cross.
The Pope writes: “This is a clear statement that the Law and the Prophets are fundamentally about the ‘hope of Israel,’ the Exodus that brings definitive liberation; but the content of this hope is the suffering Son of Man and Servant of God, who by his suffering opens the door into freedom and renewal.”
And here the Pope tells us that this is the key to all our reading of Scripture: “Scripture [Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets] had to be read anew with the suffering Christ, and so it must ever be. We constantly have to let the Lord draw us into his conversation with Moses and Elijah; we constantly have to learn from him, the Risen Lord, to understand Scripture afresh.”
And Peter asks Christ to let him build three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Christ.
Here is the key. What is it? That, in Jesus, the times prepared by the Law and the Prophets, the times of  the Messiah, have finally arrived — precisely at this moment of the Transfiguration.
This moment was the beginning of the Messianic age, which we are living in, but which is still not totally complete.
The Pope writes: “By experiencing the Transfiguration during the Feast of Tabernacles, Peter, in his ecstasy, was able to recognize [and here the Pope cites Jean Danielou] “that the realities prefigured by the Feast were accomplished… the scene of the Transfiguration marks the fact that the messianic times have come.”
And then comes one of the most profound lines in the Pope’s book: “It is only as they go down from the mountain that Peter has to learn once again that the messianic age is first and foremost the age of the Cross and that the Transfiguration — the experience of becoming light from and with the Lord — requires us to be burned by the light of the Passion and so transformed.”
There is one more thing to add. The Pope reminds us what John says in the Prologue to his Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent [dwelt] among us” (John 1:14).
Benedict writes: “Indeed, the Lord has pitched the tent of his body among us and has thus inaugurated the messianic age. “
The messiah is here.
Gregory of Nyssa reflected on this fact, Benedict tells us, in “a magnificent text.”
For Gregory of Nyssa, the Feast of Tabernacles, though constantly celebrated, remained unfulfilled.
And Gregory of Nyssa says: “For the true Feast of Tabernacles had not yet come. According to the words of the Prophet, however [an allusion to Psalm 118:27], God, the Lord of all things, has revealed himself to us in order to complete the construction of the tabernacle of our ruined habitation, human nature” (De anima, PG 46, 132B)
The opens up the entire mystery of God’s plan of salvation.
It explains why human beings are so fragile, why we are so confused, and weak, and imperfect. It is because our nature (“the tabernacle of our ruined habitation”) has been marred, made subject both to sin, and to death.
And this explains what our hope is: that this “tabernacle” will be “rebuilt,” that in the future kingdom, the kingdom of the messiah, our human nature will no longer be a “ruined habitation,” but a flawless tabernacle.
What the messiah does, what his mission is, is to restore the “ruined tabernacle” which from the beginning was intended to reflect fully the image and likeness of God — human nature.
That nature would then “shine with light” — we would truly become “like gods.”
But the way to this restoration of our nature is not the way many, or most, or indeed all, of us would prefer: the easy way of transformation without any pain or sacrifice.
No, it is the way of the cross.
It is the way of sacrifice — even the way of sacrifice of the things we hold the most dear, even the sacrifice of our very lives.
“On the mountain,” Benedict writes, “the three disciples see the glory of God’s kingdom shining our of Jesus… On the mountain, they learn that Jesus himself is the living Torah, the complete word of God. On the mountain, they see the power (dynamis) of the Kingdom that is coming in Christ.”
He concludes: “Equally, they must learn what Paul says to the disciples of all ages in the First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of God and the wisdom of God.'”
And this is the mysterious truth about all human sacrifice — even the sacrifice of those who died in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings — that it somehow “fills up” what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, to help bring about the salvation of souls and hasten the coming of God’s eternal kingdom.
Brief note: If you would like to travel with us for several days in Italy and Vatican City during the next year, we are still taking  requests for our Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 pilgrimages. If you would like information about these trips, email us at: [email protected]
“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

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