Sacred Blood: The Liturgy of Human Sacrifice (in a Christian Context)
This paper is about worship, the worship that the early Catholic missionaries to colonial Mexico imported, imposed, and reinvented with the cooperation, creativity, and even impetus of the native populations, principally the Aztecs. Also known as the Mexica (the term they used for themselves), these Mesoamerican people of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries inhabited the central plateau around Lake Texcoco and the sacred metropolis of Tenochtitlan, the site of present-day Mexico City. As speakers of the Nahuatl tongue they also carry the name Nahuas, and it was their language that the mendicant missionaries—Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians—adopted as the lingua franca of the evangelization enterprise.
The friars not only adopted the Aztec language for texts, but they also adopted and adapted selected signs, symbols, metaphors, and religious practices of the people they came to convert. This process of critical adaptation to the ethos or mores of a people was called accommodatio (accommodation) in the colonial period, and more recently “inculturation,” but it goes back to the first centuries of the Christian era.1
Douglas Hayward identifies three conditions for a successful inculturation of the Christian message: (1) the manner of communicating the Gospel must reflect the communication styles or forms appropriate to the recipient culture; (2) the language and imagery of the Gospel must reflect those of the recipient culture, particularly its picture-language; (3) and the content of the Gospel must be such that it addresses the needs and concerns of the people of the recipient culture.2
Christianity has always been indebted for some of its ritual and formal aspects to the religious languages, visual and verbal, of the pagans to whom the Gospel message was addressed. The same can be said of sixteenth-century Mexico. In many ways the conversion of Mesoamerica paralleled that of the ancient Roman Empire, not the least of which was the fact that both occurred during times of pandemics and contagious diseases.3 It also paralleled the conversion of the Germanic Saxons in the eighth century by Charlemagne and his missionary monks. That evangelical enterprise produced what was perhaps the greatest attempt at inculturation in the first millennium, the Heliand, a paraphrase of the four Gospels not only in the Saxon language but also with all the colorful metaphors of a macho warrior culture, with parallels between Christ and Woton, and the spirit-world of forests, sacred groves, forts, clans, chieftains, and thanes.4
In the Americas of the mid-sixteenth century the exercise of inculturation was the product of a selective adoption and remodeling of Christian ways resulting in a Nahua Christianity.5 Early Nahua-Christian texts, for example, commonly use the word teotl (god) for the Christian Deus or Dios; more surprisingly, they borrow epithets belonging to individual Aztec deities and apply them to the Christian Trinity: ipalnemohuani, “He by Whom One Lives”; tloque nahuaque, “Possessor of the Near, Possessor of the Surrounding”; and ilhuicahua tlalticpaque, “Possessor of Heaven, Possessor of Earth.” These epithets imply universality, omnipotence, and human dependence, and thus were easily applied to the new deity of the friars.6 Such a process of selective “recycling” was a planned and deliberate search for cultural compatibility to create an indigenous Christianity, and although done under the political hegemony of the European invaders and the religious hegemony of the Christian clergy, obviously many of the Amerindians became proactive partners in the evangelization, especially in sacred music and art.7
In large measure this indigenous or Nahua Christianity was accomplished on the level of the religious imagination, both visual and verbal. Liturgy, whether Aztec or Christian, uses the language of metaphor and the imagination.8 But metaphors are also the most difficult elements of a cultural system to translate, hence better to adopt the metaphors of the recipient culture. By applying the rich root metaphors of the Amerindian world—including sunlight, the human heart, and human blood—to Christ crucified, the missionaries hoped not only to convince their new flock of the veracity of the Christian story, but also to instill in them what ISM Professor Aidan Kavanagh used to call right worship (ortho-doxia) with its corresponding right living; in other words, a holistic Christian orthodoxy.9 In this project, they found willing informers, interpreters, scribes, translators, and liturgical assistants among the native scholar-elite, some of whom had formerly been Aztec priests.10 We might say that in the more “liberal” and experimental late medieval and pre-Tridentine period, the missionaries were instinctively operating out of two unspoken principles: ritual substitution, and dynamic equivalence.11
The first principle, ritual substitution, refers to removal and replacement, or what I have called “recycling” in the case of Mexico.12 It can be traced back to Pope Gregory the Great, who, when he sent Augustine of Canterbury to the pagan English, instructed him not to destroy the pagan temples but to baptize them, and even to re-incorporate animal sacrifices now as Christian picnics.13 As I use the term here, ritual substitution was a means of avoiding a ceremonial vacuum caused by the demolition of the Aztec temples, which were useless for Christian worship, and the suppression of their cults. Conjointly, a creative assimilation of select material components of the recipient culture enriched the liturgical order of worship: feathers, costumes, musical instruments, rhythms, etc. In my opinion, the liturgical aspects of the evangelization were probably the most palpable and successful part of the cross-cultural missionary enterprise.
Feathers, for example. In pre-Conquest days, feathered headgear and vesture had been the exclusive possession of the gods, nobility, and heroic warriors: it was the supreme sign of honor and distinction. Feathers were also associated with sacrificial victims: as bird-like messengers to the gods their heads were decorated with featherdown. Later, under the tutelage of the friars, feather-artists created Christian crosses, mosaic panels, and even bishops’ miters in colorful feathers, using especially those of the divine quetzal bird, and even in gilded feathers, thus transferring notions of divinity, royalty, and even sacrifice to the Christian images (see figure 1 on the accompanying CD). Some outdoor crosses display plumed terminations on the crossbeam and at the headpiece, according them the same signs of distinction and regal honor14 (fig. 2).
The second principle, dynamic equivalence, refers to language and the translation of texts as an attempt at a nuanced rendering to capture the meaning of the original in equivalent forms of the “receiver” language. Early on in Mexico the evangelizers realized that they could not translate word-for-word into Nahuatl because such translations either made no sense or had no impact on their hearers. This is evident in the fact that upon his arrival in Mexico in 1524, friar Andrés de Olmos immediately set to work on compiling a list of metaphors and figures of speech that the “old ones” (the native priests and elite) had been using.15 Thus, dynamic equivalence aims to transmit the message of the original text to the recipient by using comparable linguistic components. It is especially successful with rich picture language. For example, the Aztec neophytes apparently had difficulty understanding the biblical concept of “the Son of Man” as found in the book of Daniel and in the Gospels, so friar Bernardino de Sahagún and his elite scribes replaced the expression “Son of Man” with “the Son of the Virgin,” making it overtly christological. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of the Virgin and drink his blood, you can not have life in you” (John 6:53) made the act of receiving Christ’s sacramental body even more carnal. Or again, to clarify the meaning of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” the translators rendered it “forgive us our trespasses only after we have forgiven others.” This is a significant change of meaning, in my opinion.16
In Mexico, comparisons to feathers, jewelry, tortillas, and even to the ancient gods themselves, made the impact of Christianity tangible, colorful, and gave it, so to speak, a Mexica taste. In fact, “taste” might be a very apt metaphor here because Aztec theology was deeply imbued with a sense of human existence as a cycle of foodstuffs feeding the gods, the cosmos, and returning to feed human beings.17 This concept, so strange to us Westerners, was later to season the Nahuas’ taste for Jesus Christ.
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