Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost - August 8, 2021
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Exodus 34:29-35 + Psalm 99 + 2 Peter 1:13-21 + Luke 9:28-36
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
Happy Feast of the Transfiguration!
From time immemorial humans have responded to the unknown with fear. This characteristic response is encapsulated in the reaction of Peter, James, and John as they witness the transfiguration of Jesus in today’s gospel:
“…while [Jesus] was praying the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly [the disciples] saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him…. a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified…”
Of course, it is also well documented that humans meet the unknown with curiosity and wonder. In fact, in her book, The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert astutely observed that it is curiosity in particular that gave Homo Sapiens the cutting edge over other sapiens species, like for example, Neanderthals or Homo Erectus.
So, when presented, for example, with a river or mountain range other humanoids would see a boundary, a container, a limitation. Our ancestors, on the other hand, saw a challenge to be met, a threshold to cross, a territory to explore, and our curiosity would lead us onward and upward.
No doubt this innate curiosity came at a price: more homo sapiens drowning in those ancient rivers we tried to cross, or falling from cliffs on the mountains we scaled. But in the end, our curiosity served us well and our fear in the meanwhile helped to protect us as we made our adventures around the globe.
Thus, when balanced rightly, curiosity and fear might be best understood as compliments: one pressing us onward, while the other cautioning, “go slowly.” Without fear, curiosity becomes reckless. And without curiosity, fear becomes paralyzing.
It should be no surprise that in the history of religions, the near-universal religious impulse in humanity weds these two fundamental postures of fear and curiosity. Certainly, the fear of death and reverence for the dead are woven into even the most primitive religious rituals, no less than a life-long response to the beauty and mystery of creation with awe, wonder, and fascination.
At its best then, religion and its rituals and traditions has helped humanity negotiate the vicissitudes of life in a meaningful way, but at its worst has a tendency to become the repository of the worst of our fears, leading to fanaticism, superstition, persecution and so on. Beheadings, witch burnings, persecutions of all kind – each of them born of the volatile alchemy of religion and fear.
In this brief vignette from today’s gospel, Luke’s account of the transfiguration encapsulates all of these components in one story. Fear, beauty, wonder, awe: all revolving around the age-old questions about one’s ultimate identity and one’s relationship to the world-at-large.
In the transfiguration Jesus is, in a sense, turning himself inside out – revealing the beauty of his interior, divine identity, his true self – otherwise masked, hidden by his outer appearance. If everyone could have seen the transfiguration…could have looked past the veil of flesh that concealed his deepest identity – one could quite well imagine he would have had many more believers in his time. And yet all three accounts of the transfiguration in the synoptic gospels report that only his inner circle, Peter, James, and John were invited up the mountain to witness this revelatory moment, this divine epiphany. Each of them were privileged to witness what Jesus revealed to them that day, a privilege not immediately extended to the larger circle of apostles, much less those who would be his disciples.
We might ask then, what was the logic in this? Why would Jesus not reveal his deepest identity to everyone and just win over a whole bunch of converts all at once? The reason, it strikes me, is because self-revelation, no matter how honest or authentic, can be easily misunderstood outside the context of intimate relationships with those we love and trust the most. No doubt the “fear” element of religion would have opened the way for contemporary Jews and gentiles alike to interpret Christ’s transfiguration as of satanic origin or a trick of dark magic leading to an intensity of persecution rather than deeper reverence born of awe.
Even when you’re divine, it is no easy thing to disclose your deepest identity, to turn yourself inside out, as it were, saying “this is me on the inside, this is my true identity – despite exterior appearances.” Perhaps that’s why Luke tells us that after it was all over, “…they kept silent and told no one any of the things they had seen.” This particular version of the story is slightly different from what we see in Mark and Matthew, where Jesus pro-actively warns his disciples not to tell anyone until after the resurrection.
The disciples may not have fully understood what they saw, may not have entirely understood what this epiphany meant, but all three synoptic gospels agree that they nevertheless held this experience close to their hearts in silent confidence, pondering the meaning of Jesus’ identity until all was made clear in the resurrection.
The term “transfiguration” is itself a compound from two Latin words. The prefix “trans” meaning “across, over, or beyond” and “figurare” or “figure.” Thus, in its most direct, even if a bit awkward rendering, transfigure means “to change or transform the shape of something beyond its current figure.” And thus, I wonder if on this Feast of the Transfiguration, we might explore how this most beloved of gospel narratives could serve as a theological lens or spiritual basis for a Christian understanding of a different kind of “trans-identity” that has been met in modern society with the same primitive response endemic to religion: that is both fear and wonder.
I am speaking of course of transgender identity – a phenomenon that for many seems new and historically unprecedented but is in fact as old as humanity. Indeed, in many cultures transgendered people have been held in high esteem as members of society who embody a more perfect balance between the masculine and feminine (the anima and animus, as it were) and are thus revered as shamans or members of the spiritually elite.
But in our culture, shaped predominantly by the traditional morals of Jewish-Christian history, transgendered identity has been met less with awe and more with fear. Less with wonder and more with judgment. Less with compassion and more with hostility. But that is certainly changing, and will continue to change over time. And indeed, as faithful Christians it is our bounden duty help facilitate that change by allying with our transgendered friends and neighbors to help create a world in which they know themselves to be God’s beloved children.
We are fortunate to live in a time when more and more trans people find themselves in cultural and familial contexts where they are willing to risk doing just what Jesus did on Mount Tabor: That is, reveal the beauty of who they are on the inside: a truth otherwise masked or hidden by their outward appearance.
And like Jesus’ own transfiguration, such revelations of one’s identity as “trans” are typically made first and foremost to trusted friends or (one might hope) family members with whom an individual has a trusted and intimate relationship. While the “T” in transgender has been affixed on the ever-extending and somewhat bewildering alphabet of letters that collectively now refer to the so-called “queer” community – L-G-B-T-Q-I and so on….Because of this umbrella association there is a widespread assumption that the gay and lesbian community have some insight or better understanding of trans identity than society at large. I am here to tell you that that is an erroneous assumption.
What I do think we find among the LGB community is a greater openness and understanding of the experience of being misunderstood, and thus a more ready acceptance of a person when they say they are trans.
The truth is, I don’t understand trans identity at all. No more than Peter, James and John could have understood at the Transfiguration that Jesus was the second person of the trinity, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God…” The Transfiguration did not result in their immediate understanding of Jesus’ identity, but in an experience that drew them closer to him despite their lack of understanding.
But understanding is not required for acceptance. The truth be told, I don’t understand –experientially anyway – heterosexuality either. Not really. Not from the inside-out. But I can say that I sure am glad my parents were heterosexual! Lucky for me!
And I certainly have respect and love and great reverence for the heterosexual community. I understand the biological role of heterosexual attraction for the propagation of our species, and more so, I have deep reverence for the sacredness of marriage between men and women – many of whose relationships have become models of love, devotion and commitment for my marriage to Fernando.
Anecdotally, I recall a time when Forrest was just a bit over a year old he began to show clear signs of interest in all the “lady puppies” at the dog park. One day while my parents were visiting, I made a point to tell them about Forrest’s new-found attractions. And then embracing him with as much love and affirmation as I could muster, I said in ear-shot of my parents: “Daddy and I both know you are heterosexual but no matter, we love you just the same.”
My parents could hardly help but burst into laughter at the interwoven humor, irony, and sarcasm behind my affirmation. They knew full-well the message was intended for them more than Forrest. But the truth is, beneath the humor of the moment lay a much more sobering history.
It was popular when I was a teenager in the 80’s (even more than now) for Christians to assume that homosexuality was a willful and explicitly sinful ‘choice’ that could be emended or ameliorated with prayer, repentance, and submission to the will of God. As a result of being exposed to this kind of theological absurdity, two things occurred within me:
First, everything in me wished I could turn myself inside-out to prove how wrong they were. I knew in my heart of hearts they were wrong, I knew how many years I tried to “pray the gay away” or “force myself to change, or conform, or adapt.” All ending in miserable and unmitigated failure.
I knew that at no point did I choose my orientation any more than I chose for my eyes to be green or hair to be brown– And thus, to be told otherwise sounded as absurd to me as being told: “If you just pray hard enough Jesus will change your eyes to brown and your hair to blonde.” And worse! Imagine being told the fact that your eyes remain green and your hair, brown was just further proof of your faithlessness and lack of sincerity in prayer.
In response, what started in my more naïve youth as an experience of self-deprecation, frustration, and depression, eventually turned into rage at the ignorance of this kind of pseudo-religious, pseudo-scientific advice.
If I could only do what Jesus had done on Mt. Tabor that day! Yet, I had no way of making another per person see the truth – my truth – from the inside-out. If, like Jesus on Mount Tabor, I could reveal clearly and plainly the pure light who I really was, they would know how wrong they had been about their assumptions. They would know that the only choice involved was whether to accept who I was or reject my deepest identity in a life of self-denial and self-deprecation.
The gift in all of this was a dawning realization that if the Church was wrong about this issue, what else might they be wrong about? And thus, my interest in academic theology was greatly emboldened. To see the fallibility of church teaching at such a young age afforded me a healthy skepticism of religious authority, an inquisitive theological mind, and a deep desire to engage the tradition with greater nuance and agility. I wanted the ability to arrive at my own theologically-grounded conclusions, to understand the Bible on its own terms, and study the tradition in ways that would give me direct access to its deepest truths.
Secondly, this experience of being so misunderstood throughout my youth helped me to segregate ‘personal understanding’ from ‘compassionate acceptance.’ I knew that I didn’t have to understand someone’s experience, someone’s truth, someone’s identity to accept and trust what they told me about themselves and who they were in the world. I needed only, like Peter, James, and John, to accept the privilege of being counted among those who a person felt they could share with me their deepest identity.
When a trans person outs themselves to me, I understand that they are privileging me with a trust, a spiritual intimacy, their own personal transfiguration, inviting me ‘up the mountain’ as it were, where they might turn themselves inside as if to say: despite assumptions people make about me on the outside, this is who I am on the inside. This is the real me.
I don’t have to understand it to embrace it, any more than I have to understand heterosexuality or than Peter, James and John needed to understand the full-divinity of Christ that day on Mt. Tabor.
And, this does not mean, as some would fear, that we toss all discernment aside, that anything goes or that individual experience always and everywhere trumps communal witness. These are the false alarm bells rung with every new change in the world by people’s whose religion is governed by fear rather than awe, wonder, and beauty.
Embracing, affirming and allying with the trans community doesn’t mean that the Christian tradition doesn’t have a right – indeed a duty – to question and interrogate new experiences and to discern how the tradition might shed light on it from the perspective of the gospel. Certainly, anything we glean from the scriptures about transgendered identity can only be by inference. So why not infer what the heart of the gospel insists upon over and over again: that each of us are children of God, full stop: regardless of social, sexual, ethnic, or yes, gender identity.
What unites us is the common humanity that Christ took on in the Incarnation. Everything else is incidental. And if something exists, it exists because it is part and parcel of God’s infinite display of richness and diversity throughout the cosmos, as the Book of Wisdom affirms (11:24-26):
24 Yes, Lord, you love everything that exists, and nothing that you have made disgusts you, since, if you had hated something, you would not have made it. 25 And how could a thing subsist, had you not willed it? Or how be preserved, if not called forth by you? 26 No, you spare all, since all is yours, Lord, lover of life!
What if the Christian community responded with the kind of faith expressed here in the book of wisdom rather than with the myopic lens of judgment, fear, and condemnation of all that we experience as “different”? If we embrace the mystery, beauty and richness of transgendered identity, what new insights might we learn about the God who called forth each of us as we are?
Many outsiders have come to think of The Episcopal Church as theologically “wishy-washy” because of its endorsement of women’s ordination, marriage equality, and now the embrace of the transgendered community – developments within our church teaching that other communions have regarded as heretical. But any honest assessment of the history of debates, the study of scripture and theology, the decades-long deliberations of national conventions, and so on, demonstrate a process that is hardly “wish-washy” but one that is as rigorous as it is prophetic.
We can learn from tradition without being shackled to it. We can choose either to be buried by the weight of 2000 years of a kind of false traditionalism (clinging to those remnants of primitive ideas, social constructs, authorial limitations from a past that time destroys without mercy), or we can stand with Christ upon the mountain of authentic Christian Tradition, climbing, like those first disciples, to its heights to see this new epiphany, this new Transfiguration, where a clearer view, a broader view, opens us to the panorama of new theological horizons we had never before imagined.
And I am convinced that in time the daring strides taken by The Episcopal Church in the past 50 years will be looked upon for what they are: a prophetic embrace of the transfiguration of all humanity, unencumbered by fear and spurred on by the love of Christ.
As I am speaking then, to an Episcopal congregation, I trust that I am for the most part “speaking to the choir” on the issue of accepting transgender identity. But regardless of the general acceptance I encounter, many family members, parents, friends of trans people have still come to me with a sense of bewilderment, sometimes boarding on guilt over their inability to understand trans identity.
And it is this nuance that I am trying to tease out today. Acceptance is not premised on understanding. One does not require the other. Instead, what I think the gospel narrative of the transfiguration models for us today is threefold:
First, when someone shows you who they are on the inside, they are premising that disclosure on a trust and intimacy that speaks volumes of who you are to them…the love and trust they have for you and their desire for continued authentic relationship with you.
Second, you need not fully understand the experience of being ‘trans’ in order to compassionately embrace members of the trans community. Do not confuse the two or assume that lack of understanding must translate as lack of acceptance. In fact, complete understanding is all but impossible yet, a deeper and evolving understanding can only happen in the intimacy of the relationships you share with particular members of the trans community.
Finally, Christ invited his closest disciples to witness the transfiguration on a mountain top in part because thereupon the horizon of our sight is stretched beyond the limits of what we can otherwise know. When members of the trans community ask us to accept and embrace them for who they are, they too are inviting us to a mountaintop, their own holy ground upon which we might stretch the limits of our vision to embrace dimensions of God’s creation we have never known before.
Rather than recoil in fear and judgment, allow instead the religious impulse of awe, wonder, and gratitude to guide you toward a loving embrace, a celebration of the deep mystery of the human person. Revealing one’s deepest truth and identity to another is always an experience of transfiguration – that is, an experience of grace and light and truth. In a time when the trans community is still met with so much fear, hostility and misunderstanding in our world, as disciples of the Transfigured One, let us resolve today to be witnesses of divine light.
Let us embody the religious impulses of awe and wonder and shun the darker history of fear and persecution enshrined in so much pseudo-religion. And Let us above all hear the resounding affirmation of God for each and every trans-person who risks taking us to the mountain top, “This is my beloved, listen to them.”
Amen and may it be so.
+ The Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
Image Credit: Elling Reitan