The shoe salesperson looked unusual to me. Bright blouse, long skirt, high heels. Very, very large high heels. And an Adam’s apple, or was it? Broad shoulders, or maybe shoulder pads? I would never ask, but I couldn’t help but wonder, What are you?
I ask the same question at Christmas, but with a different tone. A baby born of a virgin. A baby who is fully human and fully divine. What are you?
We’re taught to ask this question of Jesus with a spirit of wonder, appreciating the mystery that is beyond human understanding. Jesus doesn’t fit our categories of how babies are born, what human beings are, and what God is. We learn to appreciate Jesus’ disturbance of taken-for-granted categories, because we know we have a lot to learn. In worship and prayer, we lean toward that learning, that growing, that discipleship.
When it comes to people who don’t fit socially normative sex and gender categories, (and many other categories such as race and ethnicity, as well), the tone of the question, “What are you?” is not one that is appreciative of mystery. We can recognize commonalities, perhaps, between our own responses and those of people who first encountered Jesus. Some asked, “What are you?” to Jesus with hatred and violence, as Herod did. Others seemed respectfully curious, like the wise men. Some were afraid, like the shepherds.
Social norms exist for a reason; they let us know what to expect, what things mean, and how to navigate our social world. When people cross categories, break norms, or create new patterns, this is often, by its nature, disturbing and confusing. We need to be mindful, then, of how we nurture our instinctual responses. Hatred can shift to love, curiosity can shift to friendship, and fear can shift to trust, but these shifts are far from automatic. These are spiritual disciplines, nurturing the capacity to experience rapid social change, and cultivating respectful and humane responses to all people of the earth.
Jesus’ parents must have been perplexed by his conception, birth, and destiny. They may not have understood what Jesus was, but they knew who he was. In choosing to birth him and raise him, Mary and Joseph said, in effect, “We know who you are: you are our son. We know where you belong: you belong with us.”
What righteousness it would be to extend such a response to all boundary-crossing, identity-confusing, norm-breaking persons. To acknowledge all that we don’t understand, but nurture and cultivate what we know full well: that each person is, indeed, a person, and that each person belongs to the whole. Recognizing the interconnection between each and all of us, is the seed of such righteousness. As Nelson Mandela said, “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other - not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”