Dies Irae: on the Final Judgment

Carracci-PurgatoryDuring 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?

All Souls: The Meaning of Death

Carracci-PurgatoryWIS 3:1-9; PS 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; ROM 5:5-11 OR ROM 6:3-9; JN 6:37-40

This year November 2, All Soul’s Day, the commemoration of those in Purgatory, replaces the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings teach us that the meaning of Purgatory and the meaning of death are both revealed in God’s love for us.

The reading from John’s Gospel makes two central points, more fully explained in the first two readings.

The first point is, “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.” The key is in the impersonal word “anything.” Jesus saves not just us, but every “thing” about us. Indeed, we would not be truly saved if he left any aspect of our humanity behind.

The second point is that “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.” It is Christ who saves us.


Our reading from the Book of Wisdom explains the connection to death, and to Purgatory.

“They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead.” It seems that life ends in “affliction” and “utter destruction.” This is the central riddle of human existence – the “foolish” are all those who lack the wisdom of Christ, and thus almost everyone. Without Christ, life seems to end in death.

“But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished” – death is the greatest punishment of all – “yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed.” Death, we learn, is not the end – not for those who know Christ. Death, and all suffering, is rather a purgation, a passage.


But why must there be punishment at all? The surprising truth is that we must die precisely so that we may live, in all our fullness: “that I should not lose anything of what he gave me.”

“As gold in the furnace, he proved them.” For the faithful, death is not destruction, but purgation. It is about burning away all that is not true, all that is not really us – not to destroy us, but to discover us, as gold is discovered when the dross is burned away.

“As sacrificial offerings he took them to himself”: the fire of suffering does not destroy us, but lifts us up, turns us entirely to praise, but uniting our true selves to him.

Then comes another key: “They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever.” Now, the problem of sin is that we act as if God is not our King.

There are three possibilities for us whose hearts are not yet set on him. One is that we could remain sinners, and make our own judgments, but God would not be king. The second is that God could be king, but we would have to be passive, because our judgments would contradict his kingship.

The third possibility is that we could be changed, so that our judgments are as his judgments: so that we can be true participants in God’s kingdom.

This is why we must be purified: not so that we will be destroyed, but so that we can be fully active in God’s kingdom, so that we can fully embrace his will as our own. One way or another that has to happen, if we are to be happy when God is king. But it will take purification. That is the purpose of suffering: to turn our hearts fully to him.


Our purification is in the Cross of Christ. The Lectionary gives us two options for the second reading, from Romans 5 or Romans 6. The theme is essentially the same. The first focuses on Christ dying for us. The second focuses on our entrance into that death through Baptism: “we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death.”

“Our old self” has to be “crucified,” has to die and rise again new. In order for our entire self to be saved, we must be changed – and that can only happen in Christ who saves us: “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.”.”

Christ’s death itself “proves his love for us,” it is a sign of “hope.” His cross is the sign that, if we are united to him, our own death, and all the little deaths of our suffering, are not ends, but passages to new life.

What is your darkest suffering? How does Christ offer it to you as a path of transformation, of letting God be truly king?