The Trans-Figured Christ

A few years ago one of the young men in my son’s group prom date turned up the day before the dance in a dress.  My son had promised to loan him the money for the ticket, so off they went together to the school office to buy it.  Two young men suddenly found themselves on the most daring walk of their young lives.  High school is just as tough as you remember it.  Somehow they survived it.  The next night I drove them and half a dozen other kids—gay, straight…and trans—to the prom where they stuck together and had a great time.  The times they are a-changin’.

The ‘Trans’ phenomenon is the new frontier in the long transformation of ideas and attitudes about sex and gender in our culture.  Most people find trans to be more challenging than gay, lesbian, or bi.  That’s because it goes to the heart of the matter in a way that g-l-b only implies.  When a man desires another man, it implies something different about gender, but the difference itself is left unstated.  A gay man still looks like a man; a lesbian still looks like a woman.  With g-l-b, gender roles are still, more or less, in tact.  But transgender thwarts gender roles directly, explicitly.  And that is the real issue—always.  Gender organizes our entire world. It gives us our marching orders, tells us where we fit, how much power we have, what we’ll be paid, and where to go to the bathroom.  Transgressing gender is serious business.

“The Transfiguration” is an odd story in the gospels (see Mark 9:2-13; Matt 17:1-12; Luke 9:28-36), in which Jesus ascends a mountaintop, where he is transformed before the eyes of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John.  The Greek word that describes what happens to him on that mountaintop is metamorphoun.  Jesus “morphed.”  What he looks like in his transfigured state is left un-said.  His clothes become dazzling white, it says.  He glowed.  Scenes like this in early Christian literature are usually set after the resurrection, when Jesus appears to the disciples as a heavenly being, god-like, restored to divine glory and ready, now, to reveal the deepest secrets of God.  So, if the story is true to form, it means to present Jesus to the disciples transformed into the image of God.

What was the image of God like?  Very bright, for one thing.  When Moses encountered “the glory of the Lord” on Sinai it is said that his face glowed for days (see Exodos 34:29-35).  Adam, it was thought, once bore the image of God, that is, before he lost it in the garden.  God created him “in the image of God,” says Genesis 1:27.  What could that mean?  The rabbis thought that it meant he was really big—that his body reached into the heavens.  He also must have been dazzling bright, sharing God’s “glory.”  And they noticed that Genesis says something specific about the man created in God’s image: he was created “male and female.”  Most people who read this today assume this means that there were male and female versions of the first human.  But ancient Jews and Christians read Genesis episodically.  Eve, they knew, appears later, in Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is all about Adam.  He and he alone was created “male and female,” in the image of God, an androgyne.

Incredible?  No.  Ancient Jews and Christians actually thought quite a lot about gender and Adam and what a return to that initial moment of primordial perfection might entail.  It often involves androgyny.  Many believed that the whole history of sin and human failing began when God took the rib from Adam and created Eve—the beginning of gendered life.  Paradise would only come when gender (not women) disappeared.  In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus tells his opponents that in the resurrection people will no longer marry nor be given in marriage, for they will become like the angels—that is, without gender (Mark 12:24-27).  In 1 Corinthians (11:2-16) we find Paul talking over a practice in Corinth that is best described as liturgical gender-bending, where men and women pray and prophesy with hair long and flowing, so that no one can tell who is male and who is female.  And in Matthew (19:10-12) we learn that there were followers of Jesus who embraced the ideal of genderless life so fully that they chose to become “eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven”—castrati for Christ.

All of this reflection on gender has roots that run deep into the very origins of Christianity.  The oldest Christian baptismal creed includes it.  That creed, embedded in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, went like this:  “You are all children (literally: sons) of God in Christ…. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female….” (Galatians 3:26-28).  Baptism erased the significance of race, class, and gender.  This is what it originally meant to be transformed by baptism into a child of God.  No longer “male and female” referred directly to Genesis 1:27 and implied that the newly baptized had returned to that primordial perfection in which male and female reside in a single whole.

Jesus baptized by John; mosaic, 6th century, Ravenna, Italy

Jesus baptized by John; mosaic, 6th century, Ravenna, Italy

In 2 Corinthians, chapter 3, Paul waxes eloquent about the transformation that occurs in Christ.  His inspiration is that story about Moses on Sinai, when he encountered God and came away glowing so brightly that he had to put on a veil so people would not be blinded by the light coming from his face.  This was when Moses received the Law from God—and Paul is using the story to defend himself against other Christians who have used the Law to criticize him for trying to create a more diverse community, even though it meant breaking the Law.  Paul was Jewish (as were most Christians then), so he speaks of the Jewish Law.  But he’s really talking about any law, rule, idea or standard that we might use to deny new truths revealed through human experience.  Anyhow, he uses the Moses story in an odd, but clever way (and sort of snarky).  He says, when Moses received scripture, he had to wear a veil to cover his face—and that veil still hangs!—over the minds of people whenever they try to read scripture (2 Cor 3:15).  Reading the Bible can lower a veil over your mind.  Sad but true, Paul, sad but true.  But the Spirit can remove the veil, he says:

When a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, seeing in the mirror the glory of the Lord staring back at us, are being changed into His image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

                                                                                             2 Corinthians 3:16-18

Everyone—not just Jesus—but everyone bears the image of God.  We may present as male or female, but deep inside there is another image, the image of God that is male and female.  “Male and female he created them.”  So says the Bible.  Unveiled.

Today we suddenly find ourselves in a time when men and women are removing the veils, dressing up, coming out, and revealing for the first time the image of God they see when they look into the mirror.  Mort is coming out as Maura, Samantha as Sam, and Pat—well, we still don’t know if Pat is a man or a woman.  But how important is that, really?  And polling shows that fewer and fewer of us really care.  We are all being transformed, it seems, from one degree of glory to another, free to celebrate the image of God, wherever and however it appears.