[Michael Kelly and John Stasio will be hosting this years' Advent retreat, Divine Love in Human Flesh – Reclaiming the Season of Advent for Gay Christians – Dec 4-6] Apparently, the question is provocative. Comments and letters in the media this week indicate that even asking it is blasphemy, a vilification of Christianity, and a mockery of people’s deepest beliefs. The Priests Anti-Defamation League is on alert, the Australian Family Association is outraged, Archbishop George Pell is being "kept informed," and even Muslims are appalled – and all because of a play, Corpus Christi, that imagines Jesus as a tender, thoughtful and gutsy young gay man in modern-day Texas.

Poster for the play, Chorpus Christia
Poster for the play, Chorpus Christia

Why all the fuss? Some years ago I taught a religious education course called "Jesus: Man, Myth, or Magic?" Each year I would tell my Year 12 students about the church’s teaching that Jesus was ‘truly man’, and we would then list some of his human characteristics. The students were fine with the dark eyes and long hair and beard, but things got tricky discussing Jesus’ digestive system or male reproductive organs. Some students were embarrassed, some shocked, and a few flatly refused to accept that Jesus was built like a normal man. Something in Christian culture and piety had instilled in these twentieth century teenagers a revulsion at the idea of Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, having to go to the toilet or cope with sexual arousal like any other man.

These students were not the first to feel this way. Some early theologians speculated that Jesus would have perfectly regulated his intake of food and drink so that he satisfied his nutritional requirements without ever needing to urinate or defecate. Some of the desert monks tried this themselves, with sadly predictable results. Even more common was the claim that Jesus had ‘perfect’ control over his sexual responses, so that he would never, for example, have had to cope with an inconvenient erection.

Most modern Christians would chuckle at these ideas, yet the smell of a pious, shame-based, anti-physical moralism has lingered long in Christianity. I suspect that beneath this week’s outrage at the suggestion that we might imagine Jesus as gay is a persistent horror at the idea of him being truly human at all: sensual, emotional, sexual, physical. The same outrage erupts when a film maker, Martin Scorsese, depicts Jesus’ love for Mary Magdalen, or a theologian, Bishop John Spong, questions the virginity of Christ’s Mother, or when openly gay Catholics line up to receive Holy Communion. The sacred and the sexual, spirituality and sensuality, must never be merged or celebrated together.

Yet this is precisely what happened when the divine became human in Jesus.

The gospels show Jesus as a man who understood and treasured the sensuality of life. Literally and figuratively, he brought the fine "new wine" of celebration. He loved parties, dinners and weddings, and was accused of being a "drunkard and a glutton" and of partying with "prostitutes and sinners." He responded by saying that the Kingdom of God would be one great feast where the poor, the prostitutes and the ritually unclean would have pride of place. He healed with spit, clay, touch and breath. He cuddled children, hugged lepers and delighted in a tender foot massage offered him by a woman of ill-repute. He taught using images of earth, weather, animals, flowers, birds and housebuilding. He revealed the secret of his identity to a woman from a despised religious sect who had been married five times and was ‘living in sin’. He left bread and wine – those essential elements of dinner parties ancient and modern – as living symbols of his abiding presence. He referred to himself as the "bridegroom" and called everyone to an eternal banquet of love.

Given all this, could Jesus have been gay?

The gospels tell us nothing about Jesus’ "sexual orientation." They are equally silent about whether he was ever married or ever had sex. What they do show is a man who loved fearlessly and without regard for cultural norms or religious rules. The love he shared with Mary Magdalen was clearly intimate and committed. The people he made his "family of choice" were three unmarried adults – Martha, Mary and Lazarus – and if Jesus too was unmarried they must have been viewed as a somewhat shocking little community in a culture strictly regulated by "traditional family values." In fact, Jesus was always telling people to leave their families, homes and properties to form a new community of equality, love and justice.

Jesus was also comfortable sharing intimate love with men. Two were especially close. John, "the disciple Jesus loved," would lay his head on Jesus’ chest at that final dinner and, alone of all the apostles, stand by him during his crucifixion. And Lazarus was referred to by Jesus’ friends, when speaking to Jesus, as "the man you love." Jesus wept openly at his tomb and performed for him his most astounding miracle.

A rarely explored gospel story also might reveal Jesus’ attitude towards homosexuality. One day a Roman centurion asked him to heal his dying servant. Scholars of both scripture and ancient history tell us that Roman centurions, who were not allowed to marry while in service, regularly chose a favorite male slave to be their personal assistant and sexual servant.

Such liaisons were common in the Graeco-Roman world and it was not unusual for them to deepen into loving partnerships. This particular centurion was well known in the Jewish community, so when he humbled himself and pleaded with Jesus to heal his entimospais, his "beloved boy," everyone would have known exactly what he meant. Jesus offered to go to the servant, but the centurion asked him to speak a word of healing, since he was not worthy to welcome this itinerant Jewish teacher under his roof. Jesus responded by healing the servant and proclaiming that even in Israel he had never found faith like this.

So, in the one gospel story where Jesus encountered people sharing what we would call a "gay relationship," we see him simply concerned about – and deeply moved by – their faith and love. (The history of this story contains a deep irony, noted by Father John McNeill, a gay theologian expelled from the Jesuits on Vatican orders. The words of the centurion, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Say but the word and my servant shall be healed" form the basis of the prayer said by Catholics over many centuries just before they receive Holy Communion. They come from the lips of a man we would call gay.)

So, to return to our original question, could Jesus have been gay?

I believe the answer is yes, but ultimately I don’t think it matters. What matters is Jesus’ revelation that tenderness, passion, generosity and overwhelming love are the very heart of God. What matters is that lesbian and gay people claim the grace of seeing, in the face of Christ, our own true face reflecting the image of God. What matters is that our heterosexual sisters and brothers learn to see shining in our eyes, no less than in theirs, the light and love of the God we all worship.

Each of us must be able to say to the other, in the words that open Corpus Christi: "I bless you and honor your divinity as a human being."

This essay was published as a Faith column in The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, in January 2001. It was later re-published in Courage to Love, an anthology edited by Geoffrey Duncan (Darton Longman and Todd, London, 2002).