The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo, president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry, preached this sermon at Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago.
Every year on the evening between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Episcopal cathedral in New York sponsors an all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno, all thirty-four exciting and horrific cantos. The timing is grimly appropriate. The action of the entire Divine Comedy begins on Maundy Thursday of the year 1300. Dante the pilgrim makes his way down through the many circles of hell, and then climbs the seven story mountain of purgatory, and then—like a human rocket ship—is catapulted into the heavenly spheres of the Paradiso, all in the scope of an Easter weekend.
I expect that by this time, the readers in the Cathedral will have concluded the last canto of the Inferno. It is a shocking canto, perhaps more shocking to the 14th century reader than it is to us, as it begins with a blasphemous parody of one of the most beautiful Latin hymns of Holy Week. As Dante approaches the deepest center of hell, his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, warns him in a mix of Latin and Italian:
Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni verso di noi,/ pero dinanzi mira,
which, roughly translated, means “The regal banners of the inferno are flying in front of us, so keep your eyes peeled and your powder warm.” So somehow Virgil, a pagan who died in the first century, knows the words of the opening verse of one of the greatest seventh century hymns in honor of the Cross, a hymn still sung in monasteries and sanctuaries throughout the world on days like this.
Vexilla Regis prodeunt;
Fulget Crucis mysterium,
Quo carne carnis conditor
Suspense est patibulo
Abroad the regal banners fly,
now shines the Cross’s mystery:
upon it life did Death endure,
and yet by death did life procure.