Christ as matador

There was a programme on the other night of Michael Palin following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. There was quite a bit of discussion about bullfighting and some of the ritual in the arena was shown, though not the actual kill. It struck me how little those who protest at the cruelty to the bull understand what is going on. Bullfighting is all about the triumph of the slender fragility of humanity over the wild and chaotic forces of nature. The matador represents us all. Beautiful in his suit of lights, elegant and graceful as a dancer, he faces the savage energy and brute ferocity of the bull. Alone on the open expanse of the arena, armed only with his intelligence and the dexterity of his movements, he channels the destructive charges of the bull, diverting them round himself. He choreographs a dance of life in the face of death. Again and again, black death fixes him in its sight and bears down on him only to be delicately diverted. Sometimes, so close is the encounter, death brushes him with its flank as it charges by staining him with its blood. Eventually death stands exhausted, head lowered, glowering. The matador provokes one last charge, leans over the horns of death and kills the bull.

This is not cruelty or wanton destruction. This ritual addresses the fears and hopes of us all and affirms that humanity can transcend the terrifying forces of nature. All identify with the matador, although few are brave or dextrous enough to be him. He wears our bright hopes as he walks out onto the arena of life and death. His fears are our fears, his wounds our wounds, his triumph ours too. No one likes to face up to the brute facts of existence. We feel too inadequate, too powerless. This is why we need heroes who will act on our behalf. This is what Jesus did. He walked out alone to face the greed, the vested interests and the inhumanity of the powers of his time. He opposed them and they killed him. That was the worst they could do to him, that was the extent of their destructive power. It was not enough. The forces of life are greater than the forces of death and by rising again Jesus deflated the power of death. He emptied it, voiding it of its fearfulness. He widened our perspective so that we could see beyond the circumscribed arena of our daily striving. He showed us that death is not terrifying, all-engulfing darkness but a door.

The contemplative stands before that door every day. He, or she, steps alone into silence, leaving aside the practicalities of living for a time, to stand before the darkness. Mute. Alone, entraining a skein of the relationships that make him who he is, he arrows into the darkness. Like a matador he carries the hopes and fears, the yearnings, voiced and unvoiced, of all and holds them up in the empty darkness at the boundary of existence. That is all he can do. That is all anyone can do.