We are long removed from the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and the events of that first Easter morning when a few breathless and overjoyed women reported that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Many, we are told, did not believe. A religion was birthed from a movement rooted in the life of Jesus and the word of these women proclaiming his resurrection. Later, others would see Jesus and notice his scars were still present; only then would they believe.
And on Easter Sunday some 20 centuries later, I was witness to the risen Christ myself.
For the second year in a row, I attended Easter in the Park, a San Francisco tradition put on since 1979 by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—an order of queer and trans nuns devoted to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and the promotion of human rights, respect for diversity, and spiritual enlightenment.
Their annual event, for me, has become an expansion of my traditional observance of Easter Sunday; for others, Easter in the Park is their ritual. In the manifold ways they always do, these beautiful Sisters provide much-needed spiritual care for people of all faith backgrounds and the faith-free, even as these over-the-top dragtivist nuns upend convention of “traditional” religion that has become more known for its exclusion than its embrace of all people. Many who have sworn off church—along with those of us who have not—find in the Sisters a truly pastoral presence, someone who will hold space for us and reflect back to us the divinity we each are imbued with. [I am looking at you, Sister Merry Peter, among others.]
Last year I entered (and won!) the Easter Bonnet Contest and viewed, with amusement and a fair amount of pearl-clutching, the event’s trademark Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary contests. Yes—the name of these contests are scandalous and are viewed by many as sacrilege.
With respect to the Hunky Jesus contest, a group of predominantly male-identified people with the long-flowing mane and tan of Warner Sallman’s circa 1941 Jesus—many with chiseled midsections (which Sallman’s Jesus may have had; I guess we’ll never know)—vie for the crowd’s affection to be named Hunky Jesus.
Now before you leave this blog in total disgust or write me off as sacrilegious, it’s important, I think, to at least acknowledge that throughout history, humankind has represented divinity in the best way they know how, often referencing characteristics of themselves to do so. And so throughout history, humans have been imagining and re-creating images of Jesus in their image. Consider these likenesses:
So I myself do not take significant issue with what happens on Easter Sunday in San Francisco. People are simply trying to find a human connection to a Jesus they can relate to. It just so happens that many people find a sexy, bearded Jesus appealing—and not just in San Fran. [Last year, it’s interesting to point out, the crowd selected a long-haired, Puerto Rican Jesus who waved the flag of his home country even as he threw out roll after roll of paper towels to a cheering crowd. This Jesus was not only physically appealing, he had an appealing agenda.]
True to form, this year’s Hunky Jesus contest brought out a variety of Jesi (the word the Sisters use for the plural of Jesus) including several who had definitely spent the long winter in the gym erring not one carb from their Keto diets. And yes, some Jesi definitely pushed the boundaries of the contest deep into sacrilege.
Yet it was there, among the Jesi title hopefuls, the resurrected Christ appeared. (At least to me.)
My husband and I were sitting with our friends a good ways back from the podium. Like all the others around us, we were enjoying the public fellowship, the sun, and the picnic we brought. Right next to us was another group who were cheering on their friend who would be entering the Hunky Jesus contest later in the afternoon. This young, smiling, bearded Jesus wanna-be sported the trademark long, flowing brown hair and complexion of Sallmann’s Euro-Jesus—with the 21st century additions of a few tatts and a septum piercing. His fit but not chiseled body was covered only by a modest loin cloth that the wind flirted with mercilessly. Red-glitter had been applied to represent key scars of the Crucified One; his head was crowned with a gold wreath of grapevine. His voice indicated to me this Jesus might also be a gay man. And that was about all I noticed about this Jesus as he visited with his friends and I with mine.
Before long, it was time for our neighboring Jesus to represent and his friends cheered him on as he made his way through the crowd, sans palm branches, to the stage. My friends and I turned our attention to our food and conversation and listened to the crowd respond to the Jesi as they proceed onto the stage one-by-one for their interviews with Sister Roma and Sister Dana. We were far enough from the stage that we really couldn’t see much of the details of each contestant. People were standing in front of us so we couldn’t see the stage unless we stood, too, so to be honest, I actually missed our neighboring Jesus taking the stage and his eventual dismissal by the Sisters who had declined to choose him as a finalist for the title. [In the end, a super-close voice vote of the crowd elected Forrest Gump Jesus over Historically Accurate Jesus (a man of Middle-Eastern descent) as the 2019 Hunky Jesus.]
The contest ended and our party reclined on our blankets, lulled by the warmth of the sun and the sacred cacophany of the thousand-or-so people gathered in Dolores Park.
Before long, the Jesus of our area of the park returned to his cheering friends laughing and sharing his experience of being on the stage. Speaking of not being chosen by the Sisters, I overheard what I thought was him saying, “I guess I wasn’t authentic enough for them.”
It was then—and not until then—that, much like the disciples who had to see Jesus before they would believe, I noticed his scars.
Scars from top-surgery.
And tears filled my eyes.
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
— the original resurrected Jesus, Luke 24:39.
I do not know their motivation for entering this contest or how their body and gender identity played into their motivation; I am even less certain that there was any religious motivation whatsoever about their portrayal of Jesus. But for me—and this is what it meant to me—here was before me was a transgender person who otherwise physically bore a likeness to the Jesus that has dominated my theological imagination for most of my life. A person who chose to walk through the park to the stage in nothing but a crown and a loin-cloth and face a crowd who would determine their fate—at least for a few moments. A person who unabashedly showed the scars of their transition to a crowd of people to see if any believed.
My Lord and my God!
This beautiful, brave person for me became IRL the most authentic Jesus my heart has connected to a human body. He (or they—I never asked this Jesus what pronouns to use) stood before us a Transgender Christ. A person who bore the scars of their decision to make their body reflect the image of the Divine, in whose image they were created, that looked back at them in the mirror. A person who wrestled, as Jesus must have, with the complexities and complications of having a human body. A person who owned their human body that more closely matched the spirit within them.
Amid the frivolity of the day, I wonder if anyone else noticed the Risen Christ among us in the park on Sunday. Or was it just me?
“Blessed are all those who never see Me and yet they still believe.”
Pastoral prayer: Easter 2019