master and magarita

The Lord and the Flies

In “The Master and Margerita,” Bulgakov’s depiction of the Crucifixion is the most unique in my experience. Grünewald and the Medieval Germans in general – even Mel Gibson – as obsessed as they were with the cruelty of crucifixion, the flies never occurred to them. Biting flies. What had to be multiple species coating every inch, actually eating Jesus alive. It should have been obvious but I had never thought of it before and I don’t know who else has. Judea is a desert. Water is scarce and so are large mammals – and they don’t stand still. For biting flies, a crucifixion is an open banquet thrown by the court of Henry VIII.

Somehow, as bad as anyone might want others to feel the agony of Jesus’ suffering in the cause of spreading the faith, the idea of vile flies consuming the blood of the Lord seems unacceptable. All over the world, Christians of every stripe observe the Eucharist, in which the blood and body of Christ are consumed by the faithful via wine and wafers. How awkward is it that nasty flies may have been the only beings to consume the real thing. The little bastards received a real communion. Were they filled with the Holy Spirit? Maybe they stopped biting and became butterflies or angels? Where are the liturgical stories of these “blessed” little parasites? The Gospels are nothing if not rationalizations for the final tragedy of the Crucifixion – dying for sins, suffering for humanity, resurrection and so many other items of “Good News,” like thirty pieces of silver lining. Even Judas was a vital instrument of God’s plan. Like the kid who fell off his bike, God meant to do that.

In Bulgakov, there is no silver lining, only the merciless flies. The ugliness is casual, with a grittiness that seems more in keeping with the dust and reek which must have accompanied the desperate crowds of the sick and poor Jesus encounters in his ministry. A grand design seems far away and the world around him is stark and uncompromising, unlike the more romantic portrait painted by Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Stripped of magic and holiness, it is the closest I have ever approached to the flesh and blood of nothing but a man, who had been arrested after a very bad day in Jerusalem. In the South, at the convenience store, you can pick up a tabloid with the mugshots of everyone arrested in the previous week. Through Bulgakov, I can see Yeshua ben Nazareth in one of them, a small town boy with naïve ideas, driven mad like Martin Luther in Rome, by the corruption of a big city he had thought of as a holy place, and who was apprehended and booked for tossing tables in the Temple.

No church has ever been able to fully erase the constant tension between Messiah and criminal, holiness and filth, divinity and humanity in the Jesus narrative. It is a subtlety too often missed by the devout and the atheist alike, who search for a monolithic and absolute religion to either follow or attack. It doesn’t exist. The closer you look at the story, the more it fractures, which is probably why the Christian faith has given rise to schism after schism, but is also so adaptable to a wide range of cultural conditions. It is hard to resolve the man casually doodling in the dust, while talking a mob out of stoning a whore, and the God who ascended into heaven on a cloud.

Almost every form of Christian faith has plenty to say on the God, and even in the most human moments in the New Testament, Jesus seems remote. In Bulgakov, Jesus passes out on the cross. When the flies break, his face is “bloated from bites” and “unrecognizable.” When a soaked sponge is offered up on a stick, his eyes “flashed with joy” and he drinks “greedily.” Bulgakov is not doing this to blaspheme or belittle. His Jesus is very sympathetic, and his human frailty confronts us with our own. It also points to the most important tension in Christianity: Jesus’ humanity is the best selling-point for Christianity, and at the same time something believers would least like to hear about once they have accepted him as God. Jesus gets us because he was us, and that’s good, but now that he is God, let’s keep it that way because we don’t want a God like us. If I were looking for a God, I would not pick Jesus. I am looking for a man, who revolutionized the way people thought about the poor, an obscure man from an obscure place who fell backward into history. I’m not interested in the mysteries of divinity. I’m interested in the mysteries of humanity.

What would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? After all, shadows are cast by objects and people. There is the shadow of my sword. But there are also shadows of trees and living creatures. Would you like to denude the earth of all the trees and all the living beings in order to satisfy your fantasy of rejoicing in the naked light? You are a fool.
—  Mikhaïl Boulgakov, The Master & Margarita