When I was ten and before we made the big move from Richmond, Virginia to Minneapolis, Minnesota, my father took my brother and I to every Civil War battlefield that was accessible in a day-trip from Richmond. The year was 1961, the one hundredth anniversary of the start of that terrible war that we still are trying to resolve at some level. As a passionate student of history, he wanted my brother and I to see these places and understand something of the terrible reality that war, any war can bring.
I admit other than still seeing where trenches had been dug by each side, at ten it was hard for me to comprehend that beautiful and rolling fields of green were once blood-soaked, fields of dying and death. I finally said that to my father. It was my polite way of edging around to the question of why this was so important. As a World War II veteran, he was clear that we needed literally to walk the ground where people had died for what was from his perspective utterly wrong: slavery and the institutions that stood behind it; the right of states to do what they wanted at the expense of a greater commonwealth or union; the idea that any of this could be something around which there was compromise when so much that was ethically wrong and unjust was at stake.
I kept going to battlefields for the remainder of that summer and fall, and they never looked the same afterwards Since then I have walked the beaches of Normandy, the slave trail that follows the James River; the concentration camp of Teriesanstadt; the unfinished monuments to Nazi Germany. Each place often now has as poet Janet Morley puts it, “a sheen of beauty, biblical in scope”. On that day in July on a rolling hill outside of Richmond, close to the Chickahominy River, my father gave me eyes to see another reality and another truth.
The Transfiguration is not an easy event to ponder in the life of Jesus. It is a powerful witness that what we immediately see is not ever the whole truth of the matter. For one moment three disciples glimpse God’s glory. They will then go on to witness Jesus’ death, and they will grapple with that terrible death as they struggle with the resurrection. In part, they grasp that truth of the resurrection because whatever happened that day on the holy mountain they glimpsed Jesus as the glory of God on earth.
My transfiguring moments had to do with seeing the horror that humans can inflict on one another, covered by nature’s green and natural grace. The gift to us as Christian people as we prepare to enter Lent is seeing a glimpse of God’s glory first in Jesus so that when we face the cross and the depth of our inhumanity we can recall that once we too were invited to be transfigured by God’s glory and perhaps, remembering can turn, repent and begin again.