In November of 1567 Pope Pius V issued a papal bull that forbade Catholic Christians from sponsoring, or watching, or participating in bullfights, on pain of excommunication, and denying the privilege of Christian burial to any person killed in a bullfight.[i]
Writing centuries later, Ernest Hemingway acknowledged that “from a modern moral point of view, that is a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible.”[ii] But this admission did not prevent Hemingway from launching an extended defense of the sport, which he insisted is actually more art than sport, and “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.”[iii] Nor did the papal edict prevent bullfighting from continuing to be enjoyed by peasants and nobles alike all across Spain, that most Catholic of nations, even to this very day; subsequent popes having weakened the force of Pius V’s ruling, anyway.
Hemingway felt that the bullfights offered a unique opportunity, as “the only place where you could go to see life and death, i.e. violent death now that the wars were over.”[iv] As a writer, Hemingway believed he had to encounter life and death, even violent death, in order to write meaningfully about them. Who am I to argue with him?
I happened to find myself in Madrid nearly a year ago during the Feria de San Isidro, in the month of May, when on nearly every night of the month a bullfight takes place at the bullring, Las Ventas, in Madrid. And because matters of life and death are of interest to me, too, I went one night to the corrida, to see the bullfights, since I am not beholden to papal authority. There are many fascinating details to report about the bullfights, most of which I must leave aside today. Today I have interest only marginally in the toreros, the bullfighters, and more especially in the toros, the bulls.
Hemingway will tell you that “the bravery of the bull is the primal root of the whole Spanish bullfight. The bravery of a truly brave bull is something unearthly and unbelievable.”[v] But truthfully, Hemingway is more interested in bullfighters than in bulls, and more enthralled by the men than the animals when it comes to matters of life and death. For it is in the person of the bullfighter that that great American writer found the crux of life and death. The bullfighter, he wrote, “is performing a work of art and he is playing with death, bringing it closer, closer, closer, to himself, a death that you know is in the horns [of the bull…. The bullfighter] gives a feeling of his immortality, and, as you watch it, it becomes yours. Then when it belongs to both of you, he proves it with the sword.”[vi]
Of course, on Good Friday, my interest is of life and death and immortality. It is my job today to write about these things – even about violent death – and to speak to you about them. And I am, of course, interested when a writer as famous as Hemingway, so renowned an observer of the world and of life and of death, turns his eye and his pen to the matter of immortality. Maybe he has something to show us, in shedding light on the gifts of the bullfighter, about the ministry of that one Man whose death unlocked the door to true immortality.
Hemingway went to hundreds, maybe thousands of bullfights; I have been to one, but I believe I may have seen enough. There in the center of the sandy ring is the bull: strong, and brave, and noble in his power and his beauty. It is important to remember that the bull has done nothing wrong; indeed, he has been sent here for this, has been bred and raised for this one purpose, to be killed by a matador in a ring. The bull has been conditioned to fight by having been limited in his exposure to humans throughout his lifetime. He is meant to be aware of the threat in the ring as soon as he arrives there.
First, the picadors confront him on horseback, piercing him with their lances, drawing the first blood from the bull, and weakening him. Next, come the banderilleros, who jab their barbed banderillas into his flesh. There is more blood now, and a weaker bull, too.
This doesn’t take long. Now the bull is bleeding; you can see his neck and back and sides stained red. His powerful neck has been weakened, and his head is carried lower now. The Spanish call this state “aplomado.” “When he is aplomado,” Hemingway writes, “he has been made heavy, he is like lead; he has usually lost his wind… he no longer carries his head high… he has obviously been beaten… but he is still supremely dangerous.”[vii] And then the matador – the word literally means “the one who kills” – goes to it with his sword, and kills the bull.
Blood my come from the bull’s mouth if the killing is not clean. He will fall to his front knees for a moment, and then, faster than seems possible, and with an almost comic stiffness, the bull will keel over onto his side, dead as can be. One of the matador’s assistants will jab a blade into the animal’s brainstem to make sure. An ear may be cut off, as a prize for the bullfighter – or two ears if the performance is deemed especially good. Then a team of mules will drag the carcass of the bull out of the ring to be butchered, its meat put to good use.
If there is anything in a bullfight that comes close to connecting the observer to immortality, Hemingway is quite wrong that it could be the bullfighter, at least by any Christian reckoning. Because every bullfight already includes a figure who is easily identified with sacrifice: and that is the bull, who has done nothing wrong, but who will be antagonized, bloodied, and inevitably killed to satisfy some bloodlust of ours that lies deep in the human psyche or soul, I guess.
On almost any given night in May, six bulls will fulfill this bloodthirst in Las Ventas in Madrid. But today, on Good Friday, there is only one sacrifice that matters, there is only one bloodied body that has been made aplomado, heavy, like lead. He has lost his wind, he no longer carries his head high; he has obviously been beaten. But he is still supremely dangerous (per se), because his power is made perfect in weakness – and this is Jesus. Sitting there at the bullring in Madrid, watching the blood pour down the innocent animal’s side, it seemed so obvious. Jesus is the bull, and the bull is Jesus: born for and sent to us for this one purpose. He has done nothing wrong; but here he hangs bleeding.
Hemingway may have the contours of the narrative right, but it’s the characters he has mixed up. For us, it is Jesus who is performing a work of art, playing with death, bringing it closer, closer, closer, to himself, a death that you know is in the thorns and in the nails, and in the torturous suffocation that comes of hanging on the Cross itself. It is real and actual death, and it comes to Jesus just as surely as it does to the bull, a final jab in his side to make sure the job is finished.
Nearly all of human history is a chronicle of the power of conquest through the shedding of blood. And it has been the hope of many men that the most successful matador (the one who kills) will become, somehow, invincible. But the truth is found in only this one chapter of history, on a sandy ring of ground beneath a Cross, where the One who is killed becomes the unmistakable victor, as the sun darkens and the earth quakes. And Christ passes through death on the way to immortality, to everlasting life, because he knows that we must do so too. There is no path from this life to the next that does not lead through death. And Jesus came to lead the way, which is more about love than about bravery, more about service than about power, more about humility than about greatness.
Mistaken though Hemingway may be about the parallels between a bullfight and the story of Christian salvation, he has nevertheless provided language that helps us beautifully to encapsulate the drama and the meaning of Good Friday. But in our case, it applies not to the one who kills, but to the One who is killed:
Jesus is, in fact, “bringing [death] closer, closer, closer to himself, a death that you know is in the [Cross…. And here, on the Cross, Jesus] gives [you] a feeling of his immortality, and, as you watch it, it becomes yours. Then when it belongs to both of you, he proves it.”
Watching from afar, you see this thing unfold, as death draws closer, closer, closer. But do you also feel the immortality that is being poured out with the blood that drips on the sandy ground? Has it become yours? Can you see his saving death, and the immortality it points to, and believe, and know that it belongs to both of you – to him and to you?
Yes, immortality belongs to him and to you and to me. And now that you have seen him die, are you ready for him to prove it, and to rise?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday, 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] “Super prohibitione agitationis Taurorum & Ferarum” (“An injunction forbidding bullfights and similar sports with wild animals”), commonly referred to as “De Salute Gregis Dominici,” 1 November, 1567
[ii] Hemingway, Ernest, “Death in the Afternoon,” New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932, p. 1
[iii] Ibid. p. 91
[iv] Ibid. p. 2
[v] Ibid, p. 113
[vi] Ibid. p. 213
[vii] Ibid. p. 147