Dies Irae: Jesus the Judge

Carracci-Purgatory“He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” The second section of the Creed, the part about Jesus, ends with judgment. This November, as we ponder the dying of the year, and so our own death and the death of all things, let us look to this final coming of Jesus. Our hymn Dies irae gives a truly stunning meditation on Jesus as judge.

For eight painful stanzas – just long enough, without being too long – it builds up the fear of judgment.

“What trembling there will be

When the judge will come [venturus – the same form of the word as in the Creed]

To make a strict accounting of all things.”

The words carry their own weight. It doesn’t have to say, “you, man, are a sinner!” It only has to say, “imagine a strict accounting of all things in your life” – and our own conscience supplies the rest. Oh no. . . .

***

 We enter deeper into the image:

 “Creation will rise

To respond to the one who judges.”

 All things will stand before a judge!

“A written book will be brought forth

In which all things are contained

In which the world will be judged

“Therefore, when the judge sits

All that was hidden will appear

Nothing will remain unavenged.”

Again, our conscience supplies the rest: we know that if all is laid bare, it will not go well for us. The drama builds!

***

Then comes the break:

“Miserable me! What shall I say?”

– Or rather –

“What patron shall I call upon?”

– Do you see where this is going? –

“When even the just man is hardly safe?”

(And I am hardly just.)

***

And then he appears. First in majesty:

“King of majesty that makes us tremble”

But he appears, also, as Jesus:

“You who freely, by grace, save all those who are going to be saved,

Save me, oh well of mercy.”

The judge is Jesus. What patron shall I call? Who will save me? None but the judge himself. Our hope is that the same God who will judge us is the one who came to save us.

***

And now, after all this trembling before the throne, comes an outpouring of the beautiful mercy of Jesus:

“Remember, oh merciful Jesus,

That I was the reason for your journey;

Let me not be lost on that day.”

The word for merciful, both here and above (“oh well of mercy”) is even richer than mercy. He is fons pietatis, Jesu pie. Our coarse, commercial, individualist, corrupt world has forgotten such words. Pietas is family feeling, a care for your own. We invoke Jesus to see us as his children – and remember that he is the very well of such feeling.

***

“Seeking me, you sat forsaken

Suffering the Cross, you bought me back:

Let such work not be in vain!”

Oh, we tremble before the judgment seat. And yet we fear it not, we don’t hide behind forgetfulness of that day of wrath, because the judge, the Rex tremendae majestatis, sat alone and forsaken out of love for us.

***

But neither do we think he is a pushover. He is

“Just judge of vengeance”

So we pray:

“Give the gift of remission

Before the day of accounting.”

He came, not to prevent the final judgment, but to prepare us for it. And we contemplate the Biblical examples:

“You who freed Mary [Magdalene]

And heard the thief.

To me, too, grant hope.”

Ah: his mercy for Mary and the thief was not to leave them in their sin, but to lead them out of it. “The gift of remission” we look for, the absolution, is not that there be no judgment, no accounting of our deeds. We do not ask for the book to be closed. We ask for it to be rewritten. You who love us so much, grant us the grace of conversion!

***

The final image takes us to the end of Matthew:

“Place me among the sheep

Separate me from the goats

Let me stand on your right hand.”

Maybe we don’t know our Scripture, but the medievals did. The sheep and the goats (Matt 25:32-33) tells of when “the Son of man shall come in his glory” (v. 31). “Then will the King say to those on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in” (vv. 34-35).

What we ask is not to avoid judgment, but to be able to stand before the face of Jesus, because we have truly loved that face in this life, in all our deeds.

What would you want to change before seeing Jesus face to face?

eric.m.johnston

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