A reflection for the first Sunday in Advent by Mary Ann Saunders.
Those of you who know me may not be surprised to learn that tonight I am going to talk about bodies. I want to talk about bodies because, whatever else Advent is, it’s a time when we look towards a particular embodiment. We look towards that moment when, our tradition tells us, God came to us in the body of a baby, and through the body of a young woman who carried God in her womb—in her uterus—in exactly the same way each of us came into this world. Yesterday I had the good fortune to hold in my arms a baby barely one month old and, because I was thinking about today, found myself pondering the mystery of God’s infinite self housed in such a tiny human body.
Bodies—messy, fragile, unpredictable—seem central to our faith, and our human connection to God, and I’m not sure we talk about them as much as we should.
I also want to talk about bodies this evening because the question I’ve been asked to reflect on is “Where is God in my life?” and in a sense the answer to this question is very simple: I came to faith through my body. I experience God, met Jesus, and feel the Spirit in and through my body, and specifically, in and through my trans body. Because of this, I long for a theology of trans embodiment, and I keep wondering what trans theologies of creation, of the eucharist, of crucifixion, resurrection and ascension would look like, because each of these are moments where, in scripture and tradition, we encounter bodies transforming or transformed, as we also do in the incarnation and the nativity.
So, in a few moments, I’ll return specifically to the incarnation and trans embodiment as we look towards Christmas from here, the first Sunday in Advent. But before I can do that, I need to address another question, which is the overarching question of these St. Brigid’s Advent reflections: What are we waiting for?
Earlier today, in this space, the Cathedral observed the beginning of this season with the tradition of an Advent Carol Service. The service begins with a series of sung calls and responses whose language echoes today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark, as well as the language of today’s Psalm. In one call, the singer, looking for something that is far off, sees the power of God coming in a cloud, as in our Gospel reading (Mark 13: 26). Another call asks God to stir up God’s strength and come, as in the Psalm (Psalm 80: 2)
A striking feature of these calls and responses, though, is that the responses are almost always a question, and always the same question: “Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?” Or, in more modern language, “Are you the one? Are you the one who we, God’s people, have been waiting for?” I like this repeated questioning in the responsory at the beginning of Advent, where the response to the calls is a question not an answer. I like this because it speaks both to our longing for an answer—our desire to know definitively—but also to our doubt that we’ve got the right answer, so we keep asking, we keep looking towards that which seems far off.
What are we waiting for in Advent? What are we looking for? How do we know when we’ve found it?
This time five years ago I’d just wound up a series of appointments with a psychologist and consequently received a referral to an endocrinologist, who I was to see in January and who would, I knew, prescribe hormone replacement therapy if I wanted it.
There had been much beauty in my life to that point, much that I was (and remain) grateful for, especially my life with my partner and our two children. Still, something that had, in my earlier years, felt like a sort of personal quirk that I could manage had become increasingly overwhelming in its demands and, in the months previous to those appointments with the psychologist, darkness closed over me, darkness that I could not see a way through, and this was what led me to consider hormone therapy.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure hormone therapy was what I needed, but I didn’t know what else to do, so it seemed worth a try. So there I was, by coincidence in the season of Advent, waiting. Looking nervously toward seeing the endocrinologist. It was a time of cautious hope for me, and the darkness started, tentatively, to lift.
To me, today’s gospel reading feels like a slightly odd choice for the start of Advent, since it doesn’t seem to be looking towards the birth of Jesus at all. The passage comes towards the end of Mark’s gospel, the speaker is Jesus, and he appears to be talking about his own coming again, and certainly not his arrival as a human baby. But if we want a story of the coming of the saviour in the Gospel of Mark, this might be it, since Mark doesn’t give us a nativity story, beginning instead with Jesus’ baptism. In other words, at the beginning of Mark, Jesus is already present. We don’t have to wait for his arrival, or even look for it, because he is already there.
What if what we’re waiting for is already here, but we just haven’t found it yet? What if what we’re looking for is right in front of us, but we just can’t see it?
Of course, the hormone therapy turned out to be exactly what I needed. I sometimes say that through this period of my life I was following blind instinct, letting instinctual forces I did not understand pull me towards something I could not yet imagine or anticipate. And I think that’s true. I was working on instinct.
But now I might also say that the spirit was moving in me, turning my face toward a life I could not imagine but desperately needed. The Spirit was moving in me, awakening and breathing life into possibilities which I had long been pushing down and turning way from. When I started hormone therapy I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I could not envision the person I am now. But when I grew into this person, I knew I was coming home to myself, to a self who had been there all along, who had been waiting for me for as long as it took me to find her.
Mysteriously, I found that Jesus was also waiting for me there, and he told me (really, he actually did) how glad he was that I now had space within me, inside of me, inside this body, for him.
What if what we’re waiting for, looking for, is already right there, but we just can’t see it?
Earlier, I said that it was coincidence that my period of waiting between seeing the psychologist, and the endocrinologist fell during Advent. But sometimes I wonder if the Spirit knew exactly what she was doing because, for me now, each Advent carries traces of that cautious hope of five years ago. Advent, now, is always tinged by hope for the as-yet unimagined.
And that brings me back round to where I started, looking across the weeks of Advent and towards Christmas, and wondering what it might look like to imagine a trans theology of the incarnation and nativity.
For me, the beauty of the incarnation lies in the strangeness of embodiment. Scripture doesn’t tell us how it felt to God when God’s infinite self was suddenly housed within the limits of a human body, but I do wonder what it felt like to God to take on this unfamiliar, material form. If we trans people often feel strange within our bodies, feel as if the bodies that we have are unfamiliar to us, then I imagine God knows what that’s like from first-hand experience, as spirit housed within an unfamiliar and limiting body.
In a sermon about the story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus frees the bent-backed woman from her bodily affliction, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Webber says of the incarnation that
“God slipped into human skin because God saves us in our bodies, not from our bodies.”1
This is, in part, why I love the incarnation of Jesus: our embodied God knows me through my body, and I know her through my body. She saved me in my body, and with my body.
I’m not convinced that I’m the only person who needs such a theology of embodiment, nor do I think that it’s only other trans people who might need it. All of us—those in old or young bodies; tattooed, pierced, and scarred bodies; currently abled bodies or bodies living with disability; menstruating or pregnant or chestfeeding bodies; large bodies or small bodies; growing or aging bodies—we all live in transformed and transforming bodies, bodies which may sometimes feel like they’re ours and at other times feel strange and unfamiliar. And where these bodies are, there God is.
We are the clay, and you, O God, are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)