Just two months ago, when Italy was still doing normal things, the government designated March 25 as “Dante Day” to honor the “father” of the Italian language and the greatest Christian poet to write in any language.
“Dante reminds us of many things that hold us together: Dante is the unity of the country; Dante is the Italian language; Dante is the very idea of Italy,” said Culture Minister Dario Franceschini. Italy needs such holding together now more than ever in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Italians celebrate the first-annual Dante Day under national lockdown. There is now plenty of time to read Dante or read about him and his importance. At those daily 6pm balcony breaks, where Italians sing and chant to each other, perhaps some readings of the Divine Comedy will be in order.
Dante Day is a timely reminder that leisure time — even enforced leisure time under lockdown — is fruitfully devoted to works of literature and culture. And the best literature, like Dante, points to eternal questions, a salutary thing when time seems to drag.
Dante Day was established to mark two anniversaries. This year, 2020, marks the 700th anniversary of the completion of the Divine Comedy, and 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321.
Helping Dante Help Italy
An artistic effort has been launched to raise funds for Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican during the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. Dante translator Daniel Fitzpatrick and Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz are collaborating on a new electronic edition of The Divine Comedy.
Schmalz is the sculptor of the Homeless Jesus now installed at dozens of major churches around the world, as well as at the Vatican’s charity office. His recent monumental sculpture depicting migrants through history, Angels Unawares, was displayed in St. Peter’s Square last fall.
Those who donate at least $5 to a GoFundMe page to support Santo Spirito will get each week, from Dante Day 2020 to Dante Day 2021, two chapters (“cantos”) of The Divine Comedy, accompanied by images of the Schmalz sculptures.
March 25 — the Most Important Date in History
Dante Day falls neither on the poet’s birthday nor death anniversary. It was chosen because Dante’s journey into the Inferno begins on Good Friday. And the traditional date of Good Friday is March 25.
That’s the reason that in the Roman Martyrology — the official liturgical book of all feast days — the feast day of the Good Thief is assigned to March 25, the “today” when Jesus promised him paradise. According to ancient tradition, the first Good Friday fell on March 25. In the Christian imagination, March 25 is the most important date in history.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, explained the importance of March 25:
“Jewish tradition gave the date of March 25 to Abraham’s sacrifice. … This day was also regarded as the day of creation, the day when God’s word decreed: ‘Let there be light.’ It was also considered, very early on, as the day of Christ’s death and eventually as the day of his conception. This is most illuminating. It seems clear to me that we have to recapture this cosmic vision if we want once again to understand and live Christianity in its full breadth.”
The early Christians accepted the Jewish tradition that March 25 was the date of creation and of Abraham’s sacrifice. Thus they gave that date to the redemption, the crucifixion of Jesus. From that it was reasoned that the same crucial date would be fitting for the Incarnation — observed today as the solemn Solemnity of the Annunciation.
It’s commonly thought that the date of Christmas was set on Dec. 25 to counter a pagan festival in honor of Mithras, and then the Annunciation, March 25, was set nine months earlier. It’s the opposite: It was March 25 that was the key date for the early Christians, as Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us:
“Astonishingly, the starting point for dating the birth of Christ was March 25. The decisive factor was the connection of creation and cross, of creation and Christ’s conception. In the light of the ‘hour of Jesus,’ these dates brought the cosmos into the picture.”
Dante, writing an epic which touches the entire cosmos and eternity, would have known that, and therefore chosen the most important date in history — the date of creation, sacrifice, incarnation and redemption — to begin the Divine Comedy.
This year Italians are likely thinking more about those eternal verities as mortality not only stalks but marches through the land.
Dante and Dying as We Live
The basic logic of the Inferno is that we continue to live after death as we did before. The punishments in hell are the extension of the sins that were embraced in life. For example, those guilty of the sin of simony — the selling of sacred things, especially the sacraments — are trapped in the earth upside down. The soles of their feet are on fire.
“The images are inverted because the simoniacs inverted the proper order of things,” explains Father Paul Pearson in his book Spiritual Direction From Dante: Avoiding the Inferno. “They trod underfoot holy things, and so this burning oil now burns their feet. This suggests the anointing with oil on the hands the bishops and priests received at their own ordinations. The very instrument of their receiving the Holy Spirit and the sacramental powers they lusted after and abused is now the instrument of their suffering.”
The lessons of Dante are for everyday life, but they apply, too, in a time of pandemic. How we live reveals our beliefs and our character. It reveals how we understand our mission in this world — and our place in the next. And a time of crisis is revealing, too, our character and how we think.
There will be no public celebration in Florence — Dante’s hometown — or anywhere else in Italy today. But his relevance remains.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.