With “her eyes fixed / upon the Point whose light [Dante’s] eyes could not bear,” Beatrice explains to the Pilgrim the nature and origin of the angelic hosts of Heaven [line 9]. She perceives Dante’s desire for the One “where every where and every when is centered” [line 12]. God is beyond space, beyond time; “for neither ‘after’ nor ‘before’ preceded” God’s creative act upon the primordial waters of Genesis [lines 20-21]. Beatrice makes reference to a minority opinion among the Church Fathers that the angels were created before the material universe. St. Jerome was of this opinion [lines 37-39]. Yet Beatrice goes on to argue for what was the majority opinion among the Fathers and the medieval theologians—that the angels were created along with the material universe. For if the purpose of the angels was to move the celestial spheres, it is fitting that they would not exist without performing the function for which they were created: “for reason does not grant that that which moves should long exist without its proper end, to move.” [lines 44-45]. This implies that the material heavens, at least, would have been created along with the angels.
Having shown Dante the celestial hierarchy from seraph to angel in the previous canto, Beatrice goes deeper and explains the angelic origin of sin and death: “The reason for the Fall was the accursed / presumption of the one you saw below / crushed by the weight of all the universe” [lines 55-57]. This of course is a reference to the angel Lucifer, whom we saw at the end of Inferno, placed in the center of the universe and therefore bearing all its weight. It was his pride that brought sin and death into human history. In contrast to the pride of Lucifer, we have the humility of the holy angels who did not fall. These were able “to recognize their great intelligence / as coming from the Goodness of their Lord” [lines 59-60]. Humility and obedience—these are the prerequisites for holiness. These unfallen angels are those who still move the celestial spheres
Beatrice launches into an aside, a digression that eats away at the precious time that Dante has, but one so necessary for him to hear—one that we must also hear! Noting how preachers of the Word, are “so carried away…by putting on a show of wits!” [lines 86-87], in their misunderstanding of the angelic beings, their poor preaching and poor instruction “provokes the wrath of Heaven” [line 88]. Setting aside God’s Word and misinterpreting it and twisting it, these are dangerous things! Beatrice laments the indifference shown to those who engage in the work of evangelization and to those who receive the Word of God and do it [lines 91-93]. Sowing the seed of the Word of God is toil and labor indeed, work that unties the knots of Adam’s disobedience which brought toil and suffering in the first place.
Some preachers, says Beatrice, contrive their own false truths in order to “make a good impression” [line 94]. God’s little ones, his own flock, become the victims: “So the poor sheep, who know no better, come / from pasture fed on air” [lines 106-107]. “Of the Gospel” they hear “not a word!” [line 96]. The Gospel means the “good news” or “glad tidings” of Christ’s victory over sin and death. In Latin, we are talking about “the evangel”, and it makes its first literary appearance in the Vulgate translation of the prophet Isaiah: “Super montem excelsum ascende, tu qui evangelizas Sion; exalta in fortitudine vocem tuam, qui evangelizas Jerusalem.” “Ascend upon a high mountain, you that evangelize Sion: lift up your voice with strength, you who evangelize Jerusalem” (Is 40:9).
Those who bring God’s glad tidings to the poor, who bind up the brokenhearted, who proclaim liberty to the captives, who open the prison doors, who proclaim the Jubilee of the Lord’s favor, they are the ones who share in Christ’s victory over our twin enemy of sin and death. Today, we continue that battle as we live out our baptism and confirmation. The Second Vatican Council teaches us: “The baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church by the sacrament of Confirmation, and the Holy Spirit endows them with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ” (LG 11). Further on, Lumen Gentium says, “The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself” (LG 33).
And then we have Pope Paul VI’s Apostolicam actuositatem: “Indeed, by the precept of charity, which is the Lord’s greatest commandment, all the faithful are impelled to promote the glory of God through the coming of His kingdom and to obtain eternal life for all men-that they may know the only true God and Him whom He sent, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 17:3). On all Christians therefore is laid the preeminent responsibility of working to make the divine message of salvation known and accepted by all men throughout the world” (AA 3).
May we, as members of the Body of Christ commissioned to spread and defend the Word, never be those described by Beatrice, who “go forth to preach wisecracks and jokes, / and just so long as they can get a laugh” [lines 115-16]. Rather, may we always turn “to the road of truth” [line 128] and proclaim in our lives, our deeds, and especially our words the “Eternal Goodness” of God and His love for us, for that Goodness is “Itself, remaining One, as It was always” [line 145]. In this way, along with the angels, we will be heavenly messengers.
David Wallace is Director of Religious Education at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield, VA, and a lecturer in catechetics and evangelization at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology. He lives in Front Royal, VA, with his wife and their five boys.