I recently posted on Facebook that I clearly need to get out more in the present since I had to stop and think about whether it’s appropriate to refer to the peoples and texts from the past which I primarily study as “ancient.” I was being silly… but also kind of serious. Windows into the first few centuries CE — through writings and material remains — showcase vibrant, complex, interesting social and religious dynamics that don’t feel to me like old, outdated ways of being, beyond which we have so obviously progressed.
In fact, when I turn from the pages of the long past and look at the present, quite frankly, we appear pretty boring! Especially in the church! There are ways in which we have progressed in terms of sex, gender, and sexuality (for which I am thankful), but our conversations and imaginations can also be so incredibly limited and limiting.
There is all sorts of modern discontent over the language we use to talk about about the Divine. If we call God “He,” do we mean that God is literally gendered male? And is the implication then that there is something inherently more valuable about maleness? Or is “he” a generic term that we use for convenience while we admit that God transcends gender? And if we assert that God is beyond our understanding of gender, can we transgress our gendered boundaries when we imagine God?
The questions I raise are part of a long and continuing debate, and there are certainly a lot of diverse, beautiful ways that people today address and express the Divine. I do not mean to dismiss or diminish the creativity that is unmistakably alive in contemporary discourse and worship practices, but when I read writings of old (not all of them being “ancient”), sometimes I want to say, “I’ll support the next candidate for bishop who speaks like THAT!” In general, we are comparatively boring!
We might be able to talk about God as both male and female and/or neither male nor female, but when is the last time you’ve heard someone think about the femaleness of Jesus? In our rational, scientific ways of thinking about bodies, we might tend to say, “No, Jesus was anatomically a man. Having been a human male, it would not be appropriate to identify Jesus as a woman.” But some earlier Christians had more lively imaginations, which I would argue animated livelier spirituality.
Take, for example, Origen. Origen lived from around 185 to 253 CE, and he was an incredibly prolific writer, composing works largely dealing with interpretation of scripture. While there was a later time he was considered a heretic, Origen was an incredibly influential theologian. Don’t let the heretic label fool you. That was about differences of opinion over such theological matters as the nature of the Trinity, matter, salvation; it was not that Origen was some revolutionary figure when it came to gender.
Yet, Origen talked about his relationship with Christ in ways that no Christian would dare speak today if wanting not to rock the boat. Contemporary Christians caught up worrying about the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks in the church and society do not tend toward imagery that could remotely be considered homoerotic. But Origen, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, read Jesus in the role of the Song’s Bridegroom and himself in the role of the Bride. What we get, then, is a kind of spirituality characterized by gender bending.
It’s not necessarily surprising that Origen would have imagined himself as the Bride since the idea of Jesus’s followers as the Bride of Christ was already present in early Christian thought. Moreover, the Song of Songs has sparked much discussion as being potentially homoerotic, and this comes especially to the fore when the text is read through the eyes of such male writers as Origen, who were envisioning (fantasizing about) their own intimate relationship with Christ.
But that’s not what really interests me here. If you want a queer-positive interpretation, you read certain ways; if you don’t, you read other ways. We can leave it at that for now. What’s particularly striking, though, is how Origen bends the gender, not just of himself but of Jesus. On the one hand, Christ as the Bridegroom is the essence of the true man, the ultimate man, the perfect husband and leader. This is the manly Jesus about whom we are most likely to hear today.
On the other hand, Christ is also the paragon of feminine beauty. The female figure in the Song of Songs is not someone apart from the Bridegroom but is the Bridegroom. And so Christ as the Bridegroom is both male and female. Origen writes about the Bride being “moved deeply by the beauty of [the Bridegroom’s] breasts” (Commentary on the Song of Songs 1.2) and says that “after she has been found worthy to receive kisses from the Bridegroom’s own mouth, and to enjoy his breasts, says to Him: ‘thy breasts are above wine'” (1.4).
Stephen Moore, a scholar of the New Testament, explains that the person who Origen
terms ‘the Bridegroom,’ is ‘himself’ anatomically indeterminate. He is obviously quite a man — utterly masterful, utterly capable of displaying his ‘husband’s power’ to the ‘virginal’ soul and initiating her into the ‘perfect mystery,’ as Origen delicately puts it (Commentary on the Song of Songs, Prologue 4) — yet he is not all man. And not only because he is also divine but because he is also a woman.
[God’s Beauty Parlor: and Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 42.]
It’s one thing to imagine intimate relationship with Christ as the Bridegroom, but to imagine the Bridegroom as a woman with breasts is another thing entirely. What’s going on here?!
Later writers would pick up on this theme and develop it further. Aelred of Rievaulx, leading the English monastery of Rievaulx in the middle of the 12th century, wrote “Rule of Life for a Recluse” for his recluse sister. In it, he narrates the life of Jesus in a way that beckons the reader to interact with and step into the place of those biblical characters engaging with Jesus; through this kind of imaginative practice, a person’s life will be shaped by Christ. Inviting his sister to the scene where John, the beloved disciple, is reclining with Jesus, Aelred writes:
…Do you see? Who is that, I ask, who is reclining on his breast and bends back his head to lay it in his bosom? Happy is he, whoever he may be. O, I see: his name is John. O John, tell us what sweetness, what grace and tenderness, what light and devotion you are imbibing from that fountain. There indeed are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the fountain of mercy, the abode of loving kindness, the honeycomb of eternal sweetness. What have you done to deserve all this, John? Are you higher than Peter, more holy than Andrew, and more pleasing than all the other apostles? This is the special privilege of virginity: you were chosen to be a virgin by the Lord and therefore loved more than the rest.
Exult now, virgin, draw near and do not delay to claim for yourself some portion of this sweetness. If you are not capable of greater things, leave John to cheer himself with the wine of gladness in the knowledge of the Godhead while you run to feed on the milk which flows from Christ’s humanity…
[Translation by Mary Paul Macpherson, in Aelred of Rievaulx: Treatises and Pastoral Prayer (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971).]
Not only do we have here the implication of Christ bearing feminine breasts, but the spiritual person is called to drink of Christ’s milk. This is not your man’s man. Rather, the body of Jesus is variously imagined in ways that are efficacious for those who would attach themselves to Christ.
People talk today about having a “personal relationship with Jesus,” but this is really a rather vague idea. It seems that what is most often meant is regular prayerful communication with Jesus and reliance upon the belief that through faith in Christ will come salvation. In this way, Jesus is a friend. He’s seen as a special guy — emphasis on the guy — who will do great things for us if we love him. But the idea of Jesus having breasts from which we drink is, to our modern sensibilities, downright bizarre.
And still, I think something more interesting and perhaps far more profound is going on with the earlier gender-queer Jesus than we might let ourselves consider. In Origen and Aelred of Rievaulx, we encounter reflections upon the humanity of Christ that foster personal exploration and self-examination, which have the potential for spiritual transformation. However, Christ’s humanity is not constrained by gender. Instead, it utilizes the gender spectrum so as to offer the most in relationship with others.
That is, Christ could just be a man who plays the typical masculine hero, but the traditional male role is limited in scope. If the Bridegroom is also the female lover, more possibilities are opened up. The Bride can be moved by the beauty of the Bridegroom’s breasts and so can be drawn to feed on the milk which flows from Christ’s humanity. This imagined interaction with the gender-bending body of Jesus expresses a deep sense that Christ does not simply take the church as the Bride but that Jesus has an essence which is nurturing.
Perhaps we might articulate a similar notion by saying that, just as a baby develops through the nutrients of a mother’s breast milk, Christians grow in faith by receiving the teachings of Jesus. But doesn’t that become a whole lot more boring?!
Seriously, though, I do think something lacks in our more detached understanding of relationship with Jesus. By reflecting upon Jesus’s body as male and female (and so the epitome and fullness of all humanity), these earlier thinkers were able to understand their envisioned physical interaction with Christ as having a profound, transformational impact upon their own bodies and selves.
This becomes quite clear in the words of Bernard of Clairvaux, head of a French monastery writing in the first half of the 12th century. Like Origen, Bernard reads the Song of Songs with Christ as the Bridegroom and himself as the bride. Going even beyond Origen’s effusiveness, Bernard writes:
While the bride is conversing about the Bridegroom, he, as I have said, suddenly appears, yields to her desire by giving her a kiss. … The filling up of her breasts is a proof of this. For so great is the potency of that holy kiss, that no sooner has the bride received it than she conceives and her breasts grow rounded with the fruitfulness of conception, bearing witness, as it were, with this milky abundance. Men with an urge to frequent prayer will have experience of what I say. Often enough when we approach the altar to pray our hearts are dry and lukewarm. But if we persevere, there comes an unexpected infusion of grace, our breast expands, as it were, and our interior is filled with an overflowing love; and if somebody should press upon it then, this milk of sweet fecundity would gush forth in streaming richness.
[Sermons on the Song of Songs 2.2, 9.2, 9.7, quoted in Stephen Moore, God’s Beauty Parlor, 25.]
Now the male reader is the one with breasts from which “milk of sweet fecundity” gushes forth, and this happens in response to Christ. I imagine that if contemporary Christians were to hear someone speaking this way from the pulpit today, many would walk away in disgust. “What a wackadoodle!” some might say.
But this kind of imagination points toward a profound understanding of relationship with Christ as having the power to utterly reshape a person. With the Songs providing the framework, intimate interaction with Jesus infuses the believer with grace, and this is symbolized by the expanding of the breast. The milk with which the breasts become full is really the “overflowing love” of Christ.
It’s allegorical. The anatomical sex of bodies is not literally changed. But the allegory of gender bending facilitates an understanding that real engagement with Jesus has tangible consequences for a person’s life. Reflecting upon the humanity of Christ — a humanity with such great possibilities — allows a person to imagine the great possibilities that one’s own humanity can be transformed.
To be sure, it is not that the history of Christianity is teeming with gender-queer patriarchs. But the imaginative flexibility we read in these texts of old reveals the limitations of our present hangups with sex, gender, and sexuality. We get caught up worrying about sexuality because we are so concerned with the question of whether or not it is acceptable for people to engage in intimate relationships with others of the same sex. It is one of the defining questions and issues of our day. Consequently, anything that could be construed as homoerotic is too sensitive and controversial for “mainstream” conversation.
Also, our scientific ways of thinking constrain our ability to think beyond what exists “in actuality.” We don’t generally think about Jesus as having female bodily characteristics because we’re locked into the idea that Christ’s body was male. To imagine something different is, to the “rational” mind, wrong.
Not only is this boring (seriously, wouldn’t your attention be grabbed if someone were to talk today about the “milk of sweet fecundity”?!), but it is, in my opinion, spiritually lacking. If we can step beyond our perceived boundaries of sex and gender, we can conceive of a relationship with Jesus (as possessing the fullness of humanity) as intimately impacting our own humanity.
To be in a “personal relationship with Christ,” in this way of thinking, is not merely thinking about how cool Jesus is and how thankful we are that we are redeemed through faith. To be in a personal relationship that is grounded in reflection upon Christ’s humanity is to understand that our bodies are changed through faith. No, it might not be that Jesus causes our breasts to swell and milk to gush forth, but our being and presence in the world is literally and figuratively filled with the love of Divine in ways that pour out of our bodies, changing ourselves and the world.
Again, I wonder, when did we become so boring?
I’m supporting the next church leader who says, “For so great is the potency of that holy kiss with Christ, that no sooner have I received it than I conceive and my breasts grow rounded with the fruitfulness of conception, bearing witness, as it were, with this milky abundance.”
(As a postscript, I do want to say that I don’t mean uncritically to glorify the past. It can be so easy to look back and say, “Oh, if only we were like them again. That’s when things were true and real.” But the fact of the matter is that every time and place is characterized by complexities, both positive and negative. Origen’s interpretation of the Song actually stemmed from a repudiation of the flesh, which I don’t consider all that healthy for how we think and talk about bodies today. Also, Origen and other male leaders were not exactly models for gender equality. As always, we should be critically attentive to those things from which we can benefit, as well as the thoughts and practices we would seek to challenge and change.)