Sunday, August 06, 2017

The ‘Transfiguration Moment’ at Dunkirk

(Transfiguration (A): This homily was given on August 6, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 17: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Transfiguration 2017]

Some of you have probably seen the newly-released movie, Dunkirk.  It’s based on a very important—and in some ways decisive—event that took place in the early days of the Second World War. 

It happened in late May and early June of 1940.  Having already captured Belgium and the Netherlands, the Nazis were making their way through France in what Winston Churchill called “a colossal military disaster”.  By late May they had most of the Allied force—about 400,000 men—trapped near the town of Dunkirk on the coast of northern France.  (Remember, this was more than a year before the United States entered the war.)  Had the Nazis attacked right away, when they first had the opportunity to do so, World War II might have ended rather quickly and quite differently.  As one article I read recently put it:
To the south and east the Nazis pressed. To the north and west stood the sea. Not an enviable position for any army. If those men were forced to surrender, Britain would’ve been easy pickings for Germany. World War II might’ve ended with a swift German victory, and Western Europe would’ve been a massive enclave of Nazi power.
Getting those troops across the English Channel quickly was imperative.  But how do you that when you have 400,000 to transport?  What followed was what Churchill (who was not the most religious guy on the planet) later called “a miracle of deliverance.”  Many believers would say that it was God’s response to the prayers that were offered all over Britain after King George VI called for a national day of prayer to take place on Sunday, May 26.

At least 3 extraordinary things occurred in the days surrounding that day of prayer.  First of all, the German army, acting on orders from Hitler, stopped about 18 miles outside of Dunkirk and delayed their attack, giving the Allies the time they needed to begin an evacuation.

Secondly, four days after this so-called “Halt Order” from Hitler was given, a terrible storm developed over Flanders, grounding the German Luftwaffe and giving the Allies more time.

And thirdly, even though there was terrible weather nearby, the English Channel in the area around Dunkirk was incredibly calm—which it almost never is.  One eyewitness said it was as “smooth as a millpond.”  This enabled ordinary people in their pleasure boats and small commercial fishing vessels to help in the rescue effort.  They were able to get close to the beaches (where the big, military vessels couldn’t go) and to save tens of thousands of men who otherwise would not have been evacuated before the Germans moved in.

British military leaders were hoping they could rescue 45,000 of the 400,000 soldiers trapped at Dunkirk, but amazingly more than 330,000 made it to safety in England.

Many, including Churchill, called it a “miracle”.  I prefer to call it a “transfiguration moment.”  A transfiguration moment occurs when we believe that God has manifested his presence to us in a special and powerful way—a moment when it becomes clear that God is real, and alive, and with us.

King George certainly saw these events at Dunkirk from that perspective, as did many others in England—thus June 9, 1940 was proclaimed a Day of National Thanksgiving in the country.  One British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, said it well.  It stated that “the prayers of the nation were answered”, and that “the God of hosts himself had supported the valiant men of the British Expeditionary Force.”

Now the interesting thing about this transfiguration moment is that it occurred in the middle of a war!  The context of the experience was decidedly negative.  The original transfiguration experience, on the other hand—the one we heard about in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 17—was glorious!  It happened on a mountaintop, in an atmosphere of faith and love and holiness.  It was so glorious, in fact, that Simon Peter wanted to pitch camp there and stay a while!  He didn’t want it to end!

But not all transfiguration moments are like that.  Some are—and we should thank God when they happen (as they do for many teenagers throughout the country at the Steubenville youth conferences every summer.  That’s one reason we go.). 

But many are not so positive.  I have known many people, for example, who have experienced God’s presence and strength and consolation after they’ve lost a loved one or after they’ve gone through some other serious trial in their life.

For them, those moments, although painful and difficult, have been transfiguration moments—the same type of transfiguration moments that many of those Allied soldiers experienced as they were crossing the calm English Channel to safety in late May and early June of 1940.

In conclusion now, let me make this final point:

It is possible to experience a transfiguration moment and not be aware of it until many months or even many years have passed.  But once we become aware of one, it’s important that we never forget it, because there will be difficult times in the future when the memory of that transfiguration moment will give us the strength and the encouragement we need to remain faithful.

Jesus gave his disciples a little glimpse of his glory on Mt. Tabor so that they would have something to hang onto when almost everyone else turned against him on Good Friday.  I’m sure that when the soldiers of Dunkirk (the ones who are still alive) are having a difficult or frustrating day in their old age (most are probably in their 90s now) their minds go back to the day 77 years ago, when they had their own Mt. Tabor experience on the sea between France and England—and they draw strength from that memory.

That’s the power of a transfiguration moment when it’s recognized—and remembered—by a person of faith.

May God help us to know that same power in our lives.