The Centrality of Christ
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It is easy to read the Comedy, and Paradiso especially, and lose sight of the pilgrim’s primary trajectory, a trajectory that governs the whole poem. There are over five hundred characters that find their way into the narrative, hundreds of ancient Greek and Roman myths explicitly and implicitly alluded to, dozens of political events particular to thirteenth and fourteenth-century Italy referenced, and many points of theology discussed as foreign to us as the Medieval world itself. It is no great surprise we feel lost reading the Comedy for the first time. Even an English translation needs to be translated again so that we can understand what is going on.
However, there is a single and primary thread running through the whole poem, and that thread is the glory and majesty of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the end, the telos, the fundamental purpose giving shape to the whole journey. I once heard someone complain that Dante’s Paradise seemed Christless. But this could not be further from the truth. The first 32 cantos are saturated with images of and allusions to the second person of the Trinity. Everything from Apollo in Canto I, to the Redeemer in Canto VII, to the Sun in Canto X, to the Cross in Canto XIV, to the Lantern in Canto XXIII, to the Pelican in Canto XXV, and the numerous discussions of His person and work in between point to the centrality of Christ and His Lordship over all things. He is the Creator of the world, the Redeemer of His people, and the Sustainer of the spheres, the King and Lord of all. He is the One for Whom all things were made, and in Whom all things hold together. As we saw above, everything has its very existence as a reflection of His Supreme Light. Furthermore, Dante’s whole experience of the heavens, of their increasing brightness and their increasing speed and joy, is preparing him for the final moment, the final crescendo at the end of the poem, when He finally stands before his Maker. For Dante, to see Christ is for the broken to be made whole, the lost to be found, the blind to be given sight, the wanderer to find his home. Everything in the poem propels the pilgrim toward this moment. It is therefore fitting that the poem ends this way:
That second circle, which appeared in You
to be conceived of light reflecting light
observed but all too briefly by my eyes,
within itself and with its coloring,
to me seemed painted with our effigy;
therefore, on it my sight was wholly placed…
Here failed the strength of my high fantasy;Paradiso XXXIII.127-132, 142-145
already though my will and my desire,
were, as a balanced wheel is moved, turned by
the Love that moves the sun and other stars.
As soon as the pilgrim’s eyes have feasted on the second person of the Trinity, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ (“That second circle… painted with our effigy”), his vision fails. He has seen Him of Whom everything else in creation is a mere reflection. In other words, having seen his Maker and Redeemer, there is nothing else to see. His “high fantasy” is complete. But make sure not to miss the importance of these final four lines. If the chief end of man, according to the scholastic mind, is to arrive at his own perfection, that is, to be functioning precisely as he was created to function, and to the fullest extent, then that place of final perfection is only achievable in the face of Jesus Christ. Only here, at the very end of the journey, when the pilgrim stands engulfed in the shining brightness of the Son, are his affections rightly ordered, his mind fully renewed, and his will perfectly balanced and whole, turned solely by Him Who keeps the whole cosmos in motion by His love. It is a striking and powerful moment, as we, with the pilgrim, stand before the Center of the universe, that infinite point around which everything turns. It is, in a word, home.
Joe Carlson (MA Humanities) lives in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. He received his BA from New St Andrews College, and his MA from the University of Dallas, where he is currently completing his doctoral studies. His thesis explored and unpacked a specifically doxological pedagogy, based on Dante’s educational projects. He has managed a chain of coffee shops, published (micro) epic poetry, co-pastored a church, helped create and staff a university campus ministry, written for the Salvo Magazine blog, and taught many different kinds of classes over the years. It was a passion for the medieval cosmology enjoyed by C.S. Lewis that eventually brought him back to an ever deepening love for the Divine Comedy.