The seventh canto of the Paradiso contains Dante’s discussion of the redemption of man which was wrought through the incarnation and death of the Son of God. Especially during this Year of Mercy, we have much to reflect upon.
Dante begins his study of the death of Christ with a simple introduction to the question of how this death could be “just” insofar as permitted by God for the salvation of the world, and at the same time a grave sin for humanity (and specifically, for the Jewish people). In the previous canto, we heard that the destruction of Jerusalem was a fitting punishment for the city. For having put the Author of Life to death, the city would be put to the sword. Indeed, from the early Christian tradition, we know that this thought was not foreign even to the people at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem—for many of the Jews believed that the city was being punished for the murder of St. James, a man of eminent holiness who was respected by all. However, in truth, the city was destroyed, not because of the murder of St. James “the Just” (as he was called even by the Jews) but rather because of the murder of the Christ. Still, we must ever recall the words of the Second Vatican Council, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews today. […] The Jews should not be presented as rejected or as accursed by God.” (Nostra Aetate 4)
Indeed, when the suffering and death of Christ are considered from the divine perspective—the Father handing over the Son into the hands of men—we see that the act is just, for the sin of Adam earned the penalty of death for all men. And the created human nature in which Jesus was punished (though perfect insofar as it was assumed by him from the Immaculate Virgin) stood for all of sinful humanity who deserve death. However, considered from the perspective of those who killed Jesus, the act is most unjust. For the Person put to death was none other than God the Son—who is most pure and innocent of all crime. Thus, God was just in allowing the death to occur, but those who killed our Lord were guilty of murder—and we all stand as the true cause of this death on account of our sins which called for such a redemption. This is the essential meaning of lines 20 to 51.
We then come to the far more interesting question of the canto: Why did the redemption occur in such a manner as this? Why did God allow his own Son to die for our salvation? Could God not have found some other way to save us? Following St. Thomas (cf. Summa Theologica III, q.1, a.1-6), Dante tells us that there were other means by which God could have saved humanity. Essentially, there were two ways of salvation: Either God could simply forgive the sin entirely on his own, or man could make some atonement (cf. lines 90-93).
Yet, it was impossible that man alone should atone for the sin committed. Being committed against the infinite Godhead, the offense was infinite. But man is only finite. Furthermore, having sinned in Adam, the innate value of man was lost together with grace. So there was no pure sacrifice which could be made to atone for man’s sin—for all that man does of himself (without grace) is of no value for salvation. Thus, it is clear that God had to forgive of himself.
Yet, it was not fitting that God should forgive alone without any work or manifestation of his love. It was possible that God could have forgiven all simply by willing it. There was yet a greater way, though. The Word desired that by becoming man, man himself might make atonement. And this man’s nature would not be fallen. And at the same time, this man was the infinite Person of God the Son. Thus his atonement would be of infinite value.
Notice, in the reasoning of this canto, Dante’s early discussion of strict justice gives way to the infinite depths of Divine Mercy and Love! In the first half of the canto, we hear of justice and the close weighing of scales. In the second half, it is all love and mercy, and this is the greatest act which has ever been accomplished (cf. lines 112-114).
The argument given is from St. Anselm (Cur Deus Homo), yet Anthony Esolen points out that the wording is Richard of St. Victor’s. “For the satisfaction [of this sin] it was fitting that there be as great humiliation in atonement as there was presumption in the untruth. But God of all rational beings holds the highest place, and man the lowest. When therefore man presumed to rise against God, it was the revolt of the lowest against the highest. Hence for the remediation and expiation it behooved that the highest be humbled to the lowest.” (On the Incarnation of the Word 8)
We may go yet further and emphasize Dante’s reasoning in lines 106-109: God would be more pleased in his work of redemption the more it manifested the goodness of his loving heart. God’s mercy is so great that he did not simply want to redeem us; he wanted to save us in the manner which most fully showed his love. Now, to simply forgive is not true mercy, but only indulgence; hence, it was fitting that the debt of sin be paid. Yet, to manifest his love, God desired to become man and pay that debt on our behalf.
Christ, being an infinite Person, could have redeemed us by the slightest sigh or the least drop of blood (as at his circumcision). Yet the Love of God is a fount of mercy which pours forth all that it is and all that it has upon beloved humanity. For this reason, Jesus did not redeem us with a mere drop of his blood (as he could have) but wished to give himself fully. He wished to be fully broken so as to be offered as a perfect holocaust wholly consumed—even as he is wholly consumed with love for his Father and for us.
The seventh Canto of the Paradiso is then the great song of Divine Mercy.
Fr. Ryan Erlenbush is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, MT, where he is pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls and also serves on the Diocesan Priests’ Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Fr. Erlenbush is also the diocesan facilitator for the Extraordinary Form in Eastern Montana.