The other night, a friend noticed a drawing of a beautiful, bearded face in my sketch book. “I know who that is,” she said, mistaking the drawing for Jesus.
“That’s a drag queen with a beard,” I told her.
But she was right. If you replaced the roses in his hair with a crown of thorns, the drag queen looked exactly like conventional images of a beautiful, dark-eyed Jesus: queer, just like me.
As a queer Catholic, I often feel like an outsider, and sometimes I’m tempted to quit the church. But Jesus was an outsider, too. More than that. I’d call him gender-fluid, both male and female.
When I call Jesus gender-fluid, I’m not talking about his sexual activity. There is no evidence of that, whatever popular fantasies like The Da Vinci Code may claim. Gender is something deeper and more mysterious: a reality that has nothing to do with the binary sexual label assigned to us at birth. It’s the foundation of our identity, the source of our tastes and predilections, the quiet inner voice that tells us who we are.
I’m also not talking about Jesus’ body. We can assume from what we read in the Bible that Jesus’ outward appearance was incontrovertibly male. We know that he was circumcised according to Jewish rites, for example. And in Luke 2, on the cusp of manhood, he was welcomed into the male-dominated world of the temple.
Yet in his behaviour, Jesus doesn’t always present as straightforwardly male, at least not according to the gender conventions of his culture. The Gospels show us a Jesus whose range of emotional expression mirrors the feminine aspects of the Old Testament God. He weeps over Jerusalem and over the death of Lazarus. He understands housekeeping from the inside: sweeping the house for a lost coin, patching clothes and gardening. He knows how yeast works in dough. Jesus seems to have learned conventional “woman’s work” beside his mother, like a girl of that time. He never uses an image from his dad’s work as a carpenter.
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Jesus also eschewed marriage, an unusual choice in his culture. In Mark 10, he describes marriage as a union that mirrors the perfection of God. So why didn’t Jesus pursue a perfect union of this kind? Was it because he was already complete in himself, as God is complete? I think Jesus embodies a non-binary approach to gender: “both-and” rather than “either-or.”
In his spirituality, too, Jesus embraces characteristics that have traditionally been framed as feminine. Throughout the centuries, direct mystical union with the divine has been understood to belong to the feminine side of ourselves, and Jesus regularly lost himself in mystical prayer. He resembles the female lover in the Song of Songs, who searches the city asking the guards, “Have you seen the one I love?” — often read as the soul’s search for God. This interpretation of Jesus’ spirituality is perhaps what led to the proliferation of feminine representations of him in the Middle Ages, as in the work of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century musician and mystic, for example.
Jesus was comfortable in the aspects of his identity that others may have considered, at the time, more feminine. Not only that, his gender-fluidity was essential to his work as God on Earth. That’s why, to me, gender-fluidity is a gateway to a spirituality that is ancient, yet always new. And it’s why I can take heart, secure in the knowledge that my own gender identity, like his, brings me closer to God — even if sometimes it also makes me feel like an outsider.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s November 2019 issue with the title “Non-binary Jesus.”
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