By Mary Ann Saunders
For me, as a trans woman, the Transfiguration feels deeply personal.
It’s not just that the word transfiguration simply means “a change of form”—which is something I know quite a bit about—nor is it simply that my experience and Jesus’ experience are consistent with the natural world. Creation, after all, is full of transfigurations: tadpoles become frogs, seeds become plants, some fish species change sex, caterpillars become butterflies (this last itself being a popular metaphor for gender transitions). We now even know that genetic information—supposedly immutable—can change over the course of our lives.
Certainly my identification with the Transfiguration encompasses these things, but what might be less obviously important to me is Jesus’ frustration, as we see it in this week’s Gospel. As Jesus comes down from the mountain he is greeted by a crowd, including a man who asks him, quite understandably, to heal his son. Jesus’ response is telling: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I bear with you and be with you?”
How much longer must I bear with you and be with you?
What is going on here? Why does Jesus respond with irritation, even weariness? Backing up in the story gives us some hints. When Jesus is with Moses and Elijah, the three are “speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish.” Here Jesus is speaking with people who understand who he is, with fellow prophets who don’t require (or demand) that he explain himself. It is a moment in which he is fully understood.
Notably, even those of his followers who are closest to him do not understand what they are seeing, as when Peter suggests making three dwellings while “not knowing what he said.” Here in the wilderness, Peter wants to build a box within which to contain the uncontainable. Similarly, immediately after this week’s Gospel passage Jesus tries, as he has done before, to explain who he is to followers who haven’t the capacity to understand (see Luke 9:44-45).
Jesus, of course, does heal the boy, and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Time and again, then, people come to Jesus demanding signs, and time and again he gives them the signs they are looking for, and time and again they are amazed. This occasion is no different, but this time Jesus is growing frustrated, even as he continues to meet people where they are.
I know this frustration.
When I spend time with other trans people, particularly other trans women, I am with people who, in very important ways, just “get” me—and I get them. Even if our life experiences and histories are very different, there is so much about who we are that we do not need to explain, nor do we find ourselves having to demonstrate or prove the truth of our identities. These women are my Moses and Elijah.
On the other hand, I know what it is like to encounter the boxes (or “dwelling places”) within which even well-meaning and loving cisgender people want to contain my experience. And I know what it is like to “keep silent” because I don’t know how to explain (and it is exhausting to try) that these are cisnormative attempts to contain something they cannot comprehend, let alone contain.
And I know what it is like to live in, and encounter daily, a world which demands signs, evidence, proof that I am who I say I am. And I know that, no matter how many times I offer those signs, I will again be asked to provide them.
In this week’s reading from Exodus, the only figure who fully knows Moses is God. When Moses is with God, he can unveil himself, but when he is with the Israelites he must veil himself because, when the Divine shines out from him, it frightens them. As with Jesus’ experience, Moses’ experience feels very familiar to me. Trans people are, of course, as much a reflection of the Divine image as anyone else. Arguably, the Divine is most apparent in us—shines out of us most visibly—when our trans nature is known. I suggest this because when we are known as trans we offer a glimpse into a facet of the Divine that is not visible in any other way—this is one of the gifts we offer the church. And yet, so often, we veil ourselves, both for the comfort of others and for our own our safety, and so our lives can feel like a constant series of veilings and unveilings.
In all of this, I find the Good News in at least three places.
First, I know that, with Moses, I can always show myself fully to God (and that God always fully knows me anyway), and that when my nature frightens others (and even frightens me), it never frightens the God who loves me entirely.
Second, I am a teacher, both by profession and by disposition, and Jesus models for me how to be a teacher who is never fully understood but who nevertheless perseveres. Jesus may, in frustration, ask “How much longer must I bear with you and be with you?” and yet she always returns to her people, she always meets us where we are. So, while sometimes I may need to retreat from the world, to be with myself and with God, I too return and continue to meet people where they are, providing the signs the world demands but never quite seems to understand, and I do my best to do so generously and lovingly.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that the transfigured Jesus doesn’t remain visibly transfigured is Very Good News. Our fully human and fully divine saviour undergoes a change of form which reveals her divine nature, but she then returns to the crowds as a human being and continues her work. Through the Transfiguration, she shows us the truth of who she is but also shows us that she remains the person she was before. So often, trans people are perceived as becoming different people when, in fact, we are simply revealing something of ourselves, something that may not have been known to those around us but which has been known to God from the time we were formed in the womb. Gender transition is a shining forth which can (but doesn’t necessarily) include a visible change of form—a transfiguration—but whose outcome is not that we are wholly changed, but simply better known.
In all these ways the Transfiguration feels, as I said at the beginning, deeply personal. It reveals to me a Jesus who is not just fully human and fully divine, but also fully trans—and for that I give thanks to God.
Mary Ann Saunders is lecturer at the University of British Columbia whose research and teaching encompasses writing and discourse studies, transgender studies, and literature. She is an active member of Vancouver’s St. Brigids Community, which is a ministry of Christ Church Cathedral. Her faith is an embodied faith—her closest encounters with the Divine come to her through her beautiful trans body—and she is slowly working her way towards articulating a theology of trans embodiment.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly reflection on ecological themes in the Revised Common Lectionary; it is curated by Laurel Dykstra and is a project of Salal + Cedar Watershed Discipleship Community.