As I began my Christmas break, I perused my bookshelf trying to find a novel I hadn’t read but purchased impulsively somewhere along the way. My eyes fell upon the blackened spine of McCarthy’s seminal novel, Blood Meridian, and after I recalled the high praise a few friends of mine gave the story, I thought, Why not spend this joyous season reading a book which has gruesome scenes depicting dead babies hanging from trees and decomposing bodies? Joy to the world / the Lord is…come?
Other than my desire to copy for you McCarthy’s beautiful descriptions of the Texas/Mexico landscape in the mid-1800s and let you marvel at the way he describes the dawn (“urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature.”) or a lizard in the heat of the day (“Through the noon heat and into the dusk where the lizards lay with their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks and fended off the world with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates.”), I’ve been more interested in exploring his constant references to Catholicism amidst the violent mayhem between the Mexicans, Aborigines, and Americans.
And of course, it makes sense that McCarthy would include Catholic characters, symbols, and language. This part of the world was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century, and in subjugating the region underneath the rule of Spain, Conquistador Hernan Cortez and others brought priests and religious leaders to convert the indigenous to Catholicism, the religion of Spain.
While I am only 80 pages into the novel, McCarthy seems to be doing something quite fascinating in Blood Meridian. By intermingling this destructive world inhabited by Catholicism with the faith which preaches that God’s kingdom – his reign of peace and love instituted through the Church – began with the incarnation of Jesus, he unsubtly reveals the disconnect between the kingdom preached and the kingdom present.
The story revolves around a Tennessee teenager – The Kid – who is trying to find his way in life. In order to make something of himself, he joins a militia in Texas seeking to “whip up on the Mexicans” even though the war is over. After an encounter with the Aborigines where nearly all of the army is slaughtered, The Kid escapes and seeks shelter with another survivor from the attack. They end up in a Mexican village only to be arrested the very next day.
All of the prisoners were sent to a different town, and as they lined the streets,
They stood along the curb and took off their hats. The guidon passed ringing the bell and the coach. It…[was] taking the host to some soul. A fat priest tottered after carrying an image. The guards were going among the prisoners snatching the hats from the heads of the newcomers and pressing them into their infidel hands.
You have this solemn moment. A man, somewhere at the end of this procession, is being taken the body of Christ as part of his last rites. A man is dying, and he is receiving the nourishment and grace of Christ once more before heads to glory.
But look at how McCarthy describes the prisoners – with hats forced in hands to “respect” the host as it passes by:
[The prisoners] All lightly shimmering in the heat, these lifeforms, like wonders much reduced. Rough likenesses thrown up at hearsay after the things themselves had faded in men’s minds.
Christ’s body passing by bound the prisoners to an imposed wonder while the true wonders of this world watched with hats in hands and shackles shimmering in the sun. The wonder of man was reduced to a lifeless form when their feet hugged the curb and eyes forced to see the image lifted high by the priest. The men – the prisoners – were no longer men because their true likeness (I would say as image bearers of God) as such “faded in men’s minds” since shackles clung to their ankles. Their sin and transgression overwhelmed the grace of God, and the kingdom of God was given by the fat priest to the dying man at the procession’s end while lifeforms lost their true essence when the cart carrying the host kicked dust up in their faces.
When I came across this description of these prisoners and the priest, I couldn’t help but think of my Syrian friend, who told me yesterday about his family’s fleeing from Syria; how he carried his two youngest children underneath his arms while the warmth of gunfire chilled his bones as he hurried for safety.
Is this family Muslim or Christian? I couldn’t tell you. There are some uncommon missiological issues involved in their story and some obvious language barriers.
But, I get the sense that, within some parts of Christianity, we act as the fat priest taking Christ to an agreeable soul. In doing so, we reduce the wonders of the souls bound up by some circumstance – often time outside of their own control – to mere lifeforms void of their true likeness as God’s beloved children. We, as the perceived keepers of an unbound God, package him up for our own safety and for the good of those who can do us no harm, and transport him past the souls who carry the burden of their children across a whistling front line.
It would be like the wise men going to warn Mary, Joseph, and Jesus of Herod’s devious plan to rid the kingdom of the greatest threat to his power, only to find that Jesus is just a mere carpenter’s son. They pass him by him because the Messiah couldn’t come from this type of family. You can imagine the wise men saying, This gift of warning isn’t for you. It couldn’t be for you. It is for someone more like us — wealthy, established, intelligent. And they move along to the next town searching again for the one they have always been looking for, but can’t seem to find.
The power of the wise men, though, is they had eyes to see that true wonder resides in all lifeforms – even amongst the poor, the outcast, the bastardized, and the refugee.
Image credit: https://oak.ucc.nau.edu/jgr6/Mccarthy_blood.htm