During this month of November, at the dying of the year, we will dedicate our Thursdays to an examination of the hymn Dies irae, “Day of wrath.” It is one of the great “sequences” of the Middle Ages: long, non-Biblical poems (this one has nineteen three-line stanzas) inserted before the Gospel for various feast days.
The Church has gradually scaled back this art form, moving in the direction of the Biblical austerity of the earlier tradition. Dies irae, decidedly medieval and downright scary, is now optional for All Souls, but used to be used in most liturgies for the the dead. (Interesting to note, however, that even in the nineteenth century, decidedly conservative about liturgical things, use of the Dies irae was for a time pulled back.)
But since we here love things medieval, let us see what we can learn!
The poem is long and richly interwoven. Although we plan installments on four topics, it is important to keep them interrelated; each loses its meaning without the others. So at the beginning, our outline for these four weeks of November:
1. Day of Judgment
2. Jesus the Judge
3. Our response to the mystery of death and judgment
4. Throwing ourselves on Jesus
The poem begins dramatically:
“Day of wrath! That day
Will dissolve time in ashes.”
We can see why modern people shy away from this poem. Should we think about God in terms of wrath?
Perhaps we should (though, again, in connection with other things). The line comes from the prophet Zephaniah:
“The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind” (Zep 1:14-17). Oh that day!
But what do we fear on that day? The first aim of the Dies irae is to shift our perspective on death:
“Death will be silenced, nature too,
When the creature rises again
To respond to the judge.”
Death itself seems the day of wrath, the ultimate punishment, the most terrifying fear of mortal man. At a funeral, at All Souls day, we stand terrified, at the loss of our loved ones, and at our own future loss.
But, says our faith, that terror is misplaced. Death does not have the final word. God will raise the dead. He has made us to last forever.
The final word, the final fear, is not that death will crush us, but, to the contrary, that we live forever. The deeper fear should be not that life will end, but that life will not end: are we prepared for eternity?
We can put it two ways. First, can I live with myself for eternity? Second, what will it be like to stand eternally before God? Those are the real questions, the things we should fear more than death.
The poem gradually turns the day of wrath inside out. From the beginning, “Dies irae, dies illa,” it leads finally to the second-to-last verse, “Lacrimosa dies illa”: that tearful day.
The movement is from outside to inside. “Day of wrath” speaks of the one we fear: death, or God, inflicting punishment on us. But “day of tears” speaks of our own response: our mourning before death, and even more, our mourning before eternity.
That second-to-last verse says:
“That tearful day
When from the ashes will rise again
The guilty man (homo reus) to be judged.”
Finally we look not to God’s wrath, but to the horrible sadness, not of eternal punishment, but even deeper, of eternal guilt. To live forever, with a heart full of hatred.
That verse picks up an earlier line:
“I groan within myself, as a guilty man (reus).”
It is a reference to Romans 8:22-23 – creation groans (it is the same word in Latin) and we ourselves groan. But why? Because we discover, as we think of eternity, our wickedness, and we long to be better.
“What trembling there will be
When the judge will come
To shake out all the details.”
To think of my life – my real life, in all its gritty details. Stricte discussurus, strict judgment, at first sounds like God is an unpleasant judge. The deeper unpleasantness, however, is not the judgment, but the very details of my life, a life so little given to things worthy of eternity.
We call upon Jesus – this is our theme for next week – to save us from our sin.
What are some details of your life this week that you would have lived differently if you imagined you would have to live with yourself forever?