Beatrice was giving Dante a tour of the heavens. After visiting the sphere of the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, they arrived at the spheres of the fixed stars. Here Dante saw Christ and His mother Mary.
After Christ and Mary had returned to the Empyrean, the heavenly hosts that remained in the sphere of the fixed stars organized themselves into luminous spheres. Each sphere was composed of many different spirits.
Dante compares the movements of these spirits to the inner workings of a clock. Some of these spheres moved rapidly, while others barely stirred.
From the most luminous of these spheres, the apostle Peter emerged. He approached Dante and gave him a theological examination on faith. Dante passed the test with flying colors. This set the stage for the events of the next canto, namely, Canto XXV.
Dante began the canto with a personal note. Because of the intrigues of his political opponents, Dante had been exiled from Florence. He now expressed the hope that because of the excellence of the epic that he had been writing, he would eventually be allowed to return to his native city.
Dante then returned to his narrative by pointing out that another flame emerged from the same luminous sphere from which the apostle Peter had come. It was the apostle James, whose body was thought to be buried in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. [This James was the brother of John and a son of Zebedee.]
After emerging from the sphere, James fraternized with Peter, his fellow apostle. Then, prompted by Beatrice, he subjected Dante to a second theological examination. This time the subject was hope.
James asked Dante three questions, one of which was answered by Beatrice before Dante had a chance to speak. James wanted to know to what extent hope had blossomed in Dante’s heart. Beatrice assured James that no son of the Church Militant had more hope than Dante. It was for this reason that he was permitted to visit heaven before his death.
James also wanted Dante to define hope. As Anthony Oldcorn and his associates inform us, Dante’s answer came from the Sentences of Peter Lombard. They translate Peter Lombard’s definition as follows: “Hope is the certain expectation of future beatitude, proceeding from God’s grace and antecedent merits.”
I find Peter Lombard’s (and Dante’s) definition unsatisfying. Hope is indeed the certain expectation of future glory. However, in the words of the fine hymn of Edward Mote, hope is “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
Accordingly, hope does proceed from God’s grace, namely, the undeserved love of God that moved Him to send His Son to die for the sins of the world. And hope does proceed from antecedent merits, namely, the merits of Christ which are imputed to all people and on account of which all who trust in him can confidently expect future beatitude. (I wish that this were what Peter Lombard and Dante meant, but I have grave doubts.)
Finally, James asked for documentation. From what source did Dante derive his hope? In reply, Dante used a metaphor, comparing hope to light. He told James that this light came to him from many stars. In particular, the book of Psalms was the star that first filled him with hope. Dante specifically quoted Psalm 9: 11. He also cited the epistle of James, which was wrongly ascribed to James, the son of Zebedee, in the Middle Ages.
James was pleased with the answers of Dante. He asked Dante to tell him what benefits he expected to derive from hope.
In reply, Dante referred to Isaiah 61: 7. In this passage, Isaiah mentioned the land that God’s children would enjoy. Dante explained that the land to which Isaiah referred was the sweet life that believers were enjoying in the realm of heaven.
Dante also referred to the white robes promised to believers in the book of Revelation, which he correctly ascribed to the apostle John, the brother of James.
As soon as Dante had finished speaking, the words “Sperent in te” resounded from above. These are the first words of Psalm 9: 11 in the Latin Bible. The Latin phrase means: “Let them hope in Thee”
Then an especially bright spirit approached Peter and James and joined them in a festive dance. It was the apostle John.
According to Medieval speculation, many thought that John had been translated to heaven without dying. Dante wanted to see whether both the body and soul of John were present in heaven. He gazed at John so intensely that he lost his sense of sight.
John corrected Dante’s misconception. He pointed out that his body was still dust on earth. He asked that Dante report this fact to the world below.
“Paradiso” from “The Divine Comedy’; Italian text and English translation by Allen Mandelbaum; Notes by Anthony Oldcorn, Daniel Feldman, and Giuseppe di Scipio
“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote