Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably heard of it. The Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri wrote a fanciful account of his own journey into Hell—that part, the Inferno, is perhaps the most famous of the three sections—as well as Purgatory, and Heaven, a trip, according to the story, which he made during Holy Week of the year 1300. Together, these three long poems have become known as the Divine Comedy.
I have to confess, I have not read the entirety of the Divine Comedy. I’ve only read bits and pieces of the bits and pieces that were assigned by a college English professor in a History of Western Civilization course. But of the parts that I’ve read, I would be hard pressed to describe the work as at all humorous. There is no satire, no parody, no slapstick, no verbally-depicted sight gags. There are no punch lines. Leno and Letterman have nothing to fear in competition from Dante Alighieri’s comedic material. Which leads one to wonder—why did he call it a comedy? Even in his own day, and before, literary comedy was supposed to be funny.
It’s a very good question, and it actually has a very good answer. Dante’s poetic narrative is comedy, not because of what it is, but because of what it’s not. It is not a tragedy. The literary opposite of a comedy is a tragedy. A tragedy, as we remember from high school and college English classes, displays certain readily recognizable features which identify it as such. A tragedy revolves around a main character who is extraordinarily gifted in ability and circumstance. He or she is of heroic stature, and shows great promise for accomplishment and leadership. But behind all that potential lies a particular character flaw—pride, perhaps, or sometimes greed, or maybe lust or envy. During the course of the story, adversity strikes, and unpredictable events occur. The potential hero’s character is put to the test, and despite all of his talents and advantages, the flaw in his character comes to the fore and proves fatal. The story has an invariably unhappy ending that is sad and senseless and, with the 20/20 hindsight of the reader, eminently avoidable. The tragic hero ends up dead, and all the hope and promise which he represented is vanished.
In Shakespeare alone, the names of these tragic heroes are familiar: Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, and others. Closer to our own time and place, we can all probably think of sports figures who have given in to the allure of gambling, politicians who get caught with their hand in the public till, and media celebrities who dissipate their lives in alcohol or a series of unsuccessful marriages.
It is tempting, then, to describe the Passion narrative, such as we have read tonight from St John’s gospel, as a tragedy. It has a highly dramatic plot, a feature which is intensified by the way we read it during Holy Week. It is a story filled with injustice, misunderstanding, and human weakness. Political and spiritual forces combine with random circumstances to railroad an innocent man into a death which seemed to everyone—friends and enemies alike—to bring a brilliant career to an abrupt and premature conclusion. What a waste! There was so much potential! And what a young man! Others might have responded, “Young, yes, but dangerous, and it’s a good thing we’ve put an end to him now before things got completely out of hand. Maybe now we can finally get back to normal.”
But the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John—especially according to John, but also according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is manifestly not a tragedy. Jesus may be an innocent victim, but he is not a victim of circumstances. Rather, he is systematically executing God’s fore-ordained plan for the redemption of the human race and the entire created order. He tells Pontius Pilate quite plainly: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born…and for this I have come into the world…” . Moreover, Jesus is also a completely willing victim, a victim at a sacrifice at which he is also the high priest. Jesus is sovereign, in control. He is not handed over to death passively, but actively; he hands himself over to death. Jesus’ crucifixion is not the tragic result of a fatal character flaw, but, rather, the most purely virtuous act that can be imagined. “Greater love has no man, than that he should lay down his life for his friends.”
Finally, even though Jesus has emptied himself and taken the form of a servant and become obedient unto death on the cross, he is not ultimately conformed to the shape and the demands of his suffering and death. He enters the jaws of death and it is death that is changed, not Jesus. In a few minutes, we will sing a hymn that contains two verses that are of such surpassing beauty that I fail to see how any conscious Christian soul can fail to be profoundly moved by them. They speak of the mystical reality that the cross did not transform Christ, but, rather, Christ transformed the cross. An instrument of shameful death is made to be the way of life and peace.
We will sing:
Faithful cross, above all other,
One and only noble tree,
One and only noble tree,
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be.
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Because Jesus hangs on the cross, it is seen to have foliage and blossom and fruit that is unequaled by any other tree in creation. Then we will sing:
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory,
Thy relaxing sinews bend;For a while the ancient rigorThat thy birth bestowed, suspend,And the king of heavenly beauty,Gently on thine arms extend.
Because Jesus hangs on the cross, it becomes, in our mystical sight as we sing the hymn, not only a magnificent flowering tree, but an animate object with maternal instincts, capable of relaxing the rigor which it possesses by nature, and bending in tender care for the holy one who is nailed to her. Jesus voluntarily mounts the cross, and the cross is forever changed!
Like Dante’s poem, jokes can and have been made about the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, but, also like Dante’s work, it is not a funny story. Like Dante’s poem, the story of the Passion is dramatically absorbing, but neither one is amusing or entertaining.
But also like Dante’s poem, our Lord’s Passion is so much the opposite of a tragedy, that it can only be known as a Divine Comedy. Dante’s comedy displays a universe that is ordered and benevolently ruled by a God who has the last word; and that word is life, that word is love, that word is hope. The cross is not tragedy. The cross is life, the cross is love, the cross is hope, our only hope.