In Exaltation of Queer Bodies, Hybrid Bodies, Borderland Bodies: A sermon-essay for Transfiguration Sunday

Note: This piece is the extended version of a sermon I’m giving today at The Abbey church. After some gentle nudging from my partner Benjamin (shout out to him and all those who wade patiently through the convulsions of writerly ego), I realized its original form was too unwieldy and theoretically dense for a sermon, so I pared it down. I’m posting it here in its extended (original) version, since it translates better in written form. The video version is the simplified, sermonified version which works better for listening.

Watch the full Abbey service on the church livestream.

Hello beloved community. If you aren’t yet familiar with this face, my name is Celine and I’ve been selecting or writing poems each week as the Abbey’s poet in residence. I’m honoured to share some thoughts with you today, on Transfiguration Sunday, from where I am on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories.

Shortly after Rob asked me to preach, I was talking to my neighbour, who as far as I know is not a religious person. She asked me what I would be preaching on, and I was faced with the daunting task of explaining the transfiguration story to someone whose familiarity with the Bible or with Christianity for that matter was completely unknown. Well, not completely: we had shared some neighbourly talks in the summer by the firepit, where her partner spoke candidly about his trans daughter, and pain surrounding the lack of queer acceptance in the church—which I deeply empathized with, more than I could say at the time. So there was that memory still reverberating in my body.

I fumbled my way through a synopsis of the Scripture passage: something about Christ on the mountain, and Moses and Elijah, and a moment of Divine revelation. “I think I’ll preach about bodies, and embodiment,” I told her. “There’s been a lot of denigration of bodies in the dominant Christian tradition, and I want to talk about how bodies are important, bodies are sacred, and this is embodied, quite literally, in Jesus—and especially in this story.” 

Perhaps I could have added: Bless the trembling bodies and the traumatized bodies. Bless all the bodies still ringing with the bell of grief. 

I’ve always found the transfiguration a strange and compelling story: Jesus takes three disciples up to a high mountain, which marks a liminal place, an in-between place between heaven and earth. The text tells us that he is transfigured before them: his clothes become luminous, and Moses and Elijah appear to speak with him. God’s voice comes from behind a cloud, naming Jesus as God’s son. The transformation is, however, transient: Moses and Elijah disappear, along with the holy glow, and on the descent, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what happened until after he is resurrected. It is a story of contradictions, a moment of sublime mystery and intimate secrecy, of partial revelation, of now-and-not-yet. Since the transfiguration prefigures the full disclosure of Jesus’ divinity through the resurrection and ascension, it is, in James Miller’s words, “a key moment of transition: a transformative moment in which a fragment of divine truth is disclosed.” With all its distilled drama, the transfiguration is a synecdoche, a microcosm for the life of Jesus as a whole: the mystery and magic of divine embodiment, of the Creator dwelling with creation. Or, as in the book of John, which eschews the transfiguration story for poetic pronouncements, “the Word becoming flesh.” 

In the transfiguration, we see the exaltation of Jesus in his fleshly, body, his earthy and earthly body: his body that touched those deemed untouchable, fed the hungry, restored the reviled, and rebuked the rich, his human body that felt hungry, tender, and weary, his political body, a brown-skinned ethnic minority living under militarized imperial occupation. Before the Cartesian mind-body split, before Constantine and Christian supremacy, before colonial racial hierarchies and scientific rationalism, Jesus shows us what Mihee Kim-Kort calls the sacrament of bodies: that “our bodies are sites for healing, for meaning making, for transformation—in other words, for salvation.” God does not meet us in some otherworldly plane, but in our bodies. God meets us in our sore backs and our bandaging of bruised knees and our roughened hands from doing the dishes. God meets us in the transitioning and transforming of our bodies through age, gender, birth, and illness. Knowing and attending to our bodies, and the bodies of others: this is holy work.

Bless the tender bodies, the transitioning bodies, the intersex bodies, the non-binary bodies. Bless the bodies longing for touch. Bless the bodies lonely and alone. Bless the bodies that live between worlds.

Brian G. Murphy and Shannon Kearns see the transfiguration as “the moment when Jesus shares what he truly is with the people that are closest to him,” a kind of coming-out moment, and this coming-out contains worlds, multitudes, paradoxes: it is as much secretive, scary, and partial as it is liberating. The disciples are terrified, transported, trembling. They are unprepared for this Divine drag show, this binary-bridging, boundary-bending body that disorients and dazzles. If the moment had a soundtrack, it might look like the music video for “It’s Okay to Cry”, a song by recently passed trans pop artist SOPHIE, in which they appeared publicly for the first time, singing emotively in red lipstick in front of a background of shifting cloudscapes. 

If you can’t already tell, I love how unavoidably queer the transfiguration story is. Judith Butler writes about how drag is a subversive act in how it troubles the gender binary. Put another way, the disruption of normative gender can be seen as an act of prophetic imagination. Let me give you an example of this. During Epiphanytide, I watched Against the Grain Theatre’s version of Handel’s Messiah, and in one solo, tenor Spencer Britten struts in heels down the rainbow crosswalks of Davie Street as he sings “the crooked paths made straight.” It is a take irresistably cheeky and gloriously gay, a transgressive re-interpretation of canon, a playful questioning that articulates the boundless fluidity of queer possibility. In Jesus’ case, he embodies what Kwok Pui-lan terms the “‘hybrid concept,’ the ‘contact zone’ or ‘borderland’ between the human and the divine, the historical and the cosmological, the Jewish and the Hellenistic, the prophetic and the sacramental.” Despite Western Christianity’s heavy-handed dogma of disembodiment for purposes of colonial and capitalist domination, hand-in-hand with other powers and principalities like heterocispatriarchy and white supremacy, the embodiment of Jesus still reverberates with radical potential. The body of Jesus is one that, in Edward Said’s words, houses the unhoused, decentred, exilic, and migrant. Said is describing the energy that animates liberation; we might call it the Holy Spirit. This body is between homes and between languages: counter, spare, strange, sacrament. Jewish theologian Susannah Heschel depicts Jesus as a theological cross-dresser, unsettling the boundary between Judaism and Christianity. In the transfiguration story, we see the exaltation of Jesus’ hybrid body, his transgressive body, his borderland body. It shows us that queer folks now have essential wisdom to share about God and embodiment. God reveals Godself in bodies that disrupt the norms and transgress the lines. Paying attention to the prophetic gift of queerness: this is holy work.

Bless the queer bodies that transgress imagination and transmute new futures into being just by breathing. Bless the trans femme bodies and the blistered-heel-but-head-held-high bodies, bless the sex worker bodies and the night shift nurse bodies and the drug using bodies and the sober bodies. Bless the disabled bodies, the aging bodies, the menstruating bodies, the chronically pained bodies. Bless these bodies changed and changing, familiar and strange, ours.

Let us return to the embodiment of Jesus as a subversive and political act. The glorious glimpse of Jesus’ full self we see in the transfiguration echoes his birth. One of the most powerful examples of embodied theology is the Magnificat, one of my favourite Scripture passages, when Mary praises God and declares God’s character through what is occuring in her body. We can see Jesus following Mary’s example throughout his life and ministry, making meaning and relating to God in his body as she did. I wonder if he learned this from her: did he hear her speak while swimming in the womb? Did she raise him in this wisdom? So while on the surface the transfiguration story may seem to be all about the patriarchs, this moment recalls matriarchal memory and the power of birth: behold, Jesus is birthing something new, ushering in a new kin-dom of the lowly and the least. Dorothy Lee interprets the transfiguration as apocalyptic drama in that it reveals Jesus as bearing forth God’s glorious future—the transformation of all creation. So Jesus’ body is also a birthing body, a life-giving body that lives, dies, lives again, and in the mystery of communion, a body that feeds and sustains us. 

I think about Jesus’ body being, like ours, more than two thirds water, like the earth itself, and how this transfiguration moment is also ecological, a carnivalesque unmasking of anthrocentrism and individualism, an “absorbing of self into our network of relations” (Robinson). Secwepemc land defender Kanahus Manuel, a leader in rigourous grassroots resistance to the Trans Mountain Pipeline, recently shared one of the main reasons for her lifelong dedication to the land, and why she puts her body continually on the frontlines in. She wrote about the devastation of a sacred lake in Secwepemc territory following a mining disaster in 2014. 25 billion litres of toxins spilled into a lake that had brought forth drinking water and salmon spawning, a lake named for the waters breaking during birth. As Indigenous water protectors have known since time immemorial, we are all connected. We are in our own moment of apocalyptic revelation: the Eurocene, an era of unignorable extinction and climate collapse. An embodied and transfigured theology turns us towards this truth, towards the deep waters of love and grief in ourselves. And who better to teach us about transformation than plants, trees, birds, bees, and seeds? Learning from our non-human relations — who are also made in the image of God — and from Indigenous leaders, Elders, and matriarchs: this is holy work.

Bless the bodies of water, the water that brings life. Bless the birthing bodies, the worn-out parenting collapsed-in-bed bodies, the bodies that have miscarried, the bodies misinterpreted and maligned. Bless the dissociated and dysphoric bodies, the diasporic and displaced bodies. Bless the scarred bodies, the plants, roots, and tree bodies, the sea bodies. Bless the Earth body changed and changing, familiar and strange, ours.

When I read and re-read the transfiguration story, I see not just the sacrament of bodies, the queer and hybrid and subversive body of Christ, but also, the sacred places bodies move through and inhabit. The transfiguration shows us the exaltation of Jesus’ body, which is a particular body: it is of a brown body, an occupied body, a Jewish body, a body living in first century Palestine under the shadow of empire. Jesus may not be an anti-imperial revolutionary in the sense of armed revolt or guerilla warfare, but he exemplifies to me what Cornel West calls a “jazz freedom fighter.” His embodied theology of expansive community disrupted rigid doctrines and de-stabilized the machinery of oppression. And in the transfiguration, Jesus enacts fugitive ceremony. Jesus’ reclamation of hallowed ground and communion with his ancestors is a similarly destabilizing act, prophetic resistance to the geographic dominion of Rome. In the transfiguration story, the land has power and agency. The land holds ancestral memory deeper than the flags of the conquerors, the domain of the dominators, the border walls and checkpoints of the colonizers. Even Peter, who is not a disciple known for his tact or eloquence, recognizes this, in his own fashion: he offers to build three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, so convinced is he of their physicality. The ancestors are not spectral beings but fully present and material, and their own transformed and transformative histories are revealed as intertwined with Jesus’ own, on this holy mountain. 

Three years ago, on a rain-drenched May afternoon, I ascended Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten, known in English as Burnaby Mountain, which in the Squamish means “the place where the bark gets peeled in spring.” The Squamish name reflects the significance of cedar, the Coast Salish tree of life. I was visiting the Watch House built by Tsleil-Waututh land defenders near the construction route of the Trans Mountain pipeline. One of the Elders welcomed me and told me to introduce my own ancestors to those of the territory, and inside the hushed wooden structure, I closed my eyes and thought of all the unnamed ancestors whose lives gave me life: the migrating Hakka, the river-aged Fujian folk, my own ocean-traversing grandparents. I thought of the Elders I knew in the Downtown Eastside who told me to be brave. I thought of land stolen and treaties broken. It was here, on this holy mountain, where I was arrested blocking the entrance to the pipeline construction site. I was one of more than 200 people arrested that spring, moved by the calls from Indigenous leaders to put our bodies on the line, a tangible act of settler solidarity, love for the land, and decolonization. This is actually how I met Rob – turns out getting arrested together can be a solid basis for friendship. We had been participating in a day of action for people of faith. I still remember the pounding of my heart as the police approached, the absolute stillness in my body, every cell watchful and expectant. I still remember the pounding of my heart as the police approached, the absolute stillness in my body, every cell watchful and expectant. It was one of the most revelatory, transformative, prayerful moments I’ve ever experienced. 

I tell this story because I think it’s important to name that an embodied theology demands active transformation: of ourselves and beyond ourselves. It demands for us to centre those whose embodiment is threatened by the logic of dominance, in Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza’s words. Embodiment work being done by revolutionary Black practitioners like Resmaa Menakem, Sonya Renée, and adrienne maree brown reminds us that oppression lives in the body, and so does healing and resistance. Do we recognize Jesus in the marginal bodies of our time, the racialized and targeted bodies, the policed and incarcerated bodies, the undocumented and immigrant bodies, the queer and trans and disabled bodies? How can we work to create spaciousness, justice, and joy, alternative vision, for all bodies to be celebrated, honoured, and known, as they are: holy places, hallowed ground, sacrament? In the phrasing of this Black Futures Month, free to dream, free to flourish, free to be? What are the sacred sites of queer possibility and ecological encounter, all the liminal and hybrid places where God is breaking through disembodying systems of suppression and supremacy and changing us, making us and all things new?

Today, Transfiguration Sunday, is also February 14th, the day of the Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown Eastside. The Women’s Memorial March has commemorated the lives of the Missing and Murdered women for thirty years, and it was birthed as fugitive ceremony, an act of grief and defiance and healing and love in public. This year will likely be different because of Covid: in usual circumstances, at least in the last few years, thousands walk the streets in remembrance. I think of the march as another kind of hybrid and holy place, like Jesus meeting with his ancestors on the mountain. It is a transfiguring and re-scribing of urban streets by Indigenous matriarchs and memory-keepers, a collective body as powerful and fluid and unstoppable as water itself, life everlasting. May we be so generous and generative as water in embodying God’s justice, and may you, Embodied God, break into the ordinary of our lives, meet us anew in our bodies, and so transform us, as we partake in the transforming of the world.

Amen.

Works Quoted & Consulted:
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