Dies Irae: Jesus is Everything


Oops!  Between the turkey and the pie, we forgot to post this meditation yesterday!

The year comes full circle. November is the month of death. Liturgically we look to the saints in heaven, think of those in Purgatory, and think of the year as ending. Outside the world is gray and dying. But at the end of this month of ending comes Thanksgiving – because the time of death is also the time of harvest, and thanksgiving for the year behind us.

So too do we end the year with Christ the King, pointing to judgment, yes, at the end of this life – but more directly to the great kingdom which is to come, the new beginning. And thus too Advent: a time of penance, a time of thinking about the end of the world, as things grow darker and colder still – but more than that, a time of preparing for the new birth at Christmas.


Perhaps it’s odd to ponder the Dies irae – day of wrath! – between turkey and pie, the Macy’s parade and the football game. But the Dies irae itself sees “the day of wrath,” “the day of reckoning,” “that tearful day,” “when there will be trembling, when the judge will come, to make a strict accounting,” finally in terms of hope.

Right in the middle, the Rex tremendae majestatis, king of majesty that makes us tremble, is also, in the very next line, the one who saves gratuitously, and in the next, the fons pietatis, wellspring of family feeling, pity, mercy. Two stanzas later we contemplate Christ “sitting forsaken,” not as an image of wrath, but as redeemer: “let that work not be in vain!” And the final word of the poem is not anger or judgment or tears, but peace: dona eis requiem.

The Dies irae teaches us to tremble, but it also – more profoundly – teaches us to give thanks, for so great a redeemer, the bringer of hope and love and peace.


The central image is that we will finally look on the face of Jesus, a central meditation of the Middle Ages.

Now strictly speaking, the object of the beatific vision is not the humanity of Christ but the Triune divinity. It is not his human face that will finally make us happy, but his divinity. But we mustn’t drive too strong a wedge between, and the piety of the Middle Ages emphasizes looking on his face – just as, in John’s Revelation, we always see the one seated on the throne (the divinity) together with the Lamb who was slain (the humanity of Christ).

So the magnificent Salve Regina (c. 1050) culminates “Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis, post hoc exilium, ostende”: after this exile, show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus – underlining his humanity. And the equally magnificent Ave Stella Maris (800s?)concludes all its prayers for this life with “so that, seeing Jesus, we may ever rejoice with him.” We long to see his face.


But the Dies irae alludes to perhaps the grandest (and most Biblically central) icon. It slowly weaves the image. “Rex tremendae majestatis,” from Matthew 25:31, “when the Son of Man will come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the seat of his majesty.”

It then inserts two verses about him coming to save us – “Remember that I am the cause of your journey . . . suffering the Cross, you redeemed . . .” – as if to underline the aspect of gift in Matthew 25:34, “then the king will say to those on his right, come, blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you.” Matthew’s commands must always be read in light of the grace of redemption.

And it culminates with the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:32-33), including some frightening thoughts about the flames, as Jesus says to the goats, “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

All of this draws us deeper into Matthew 25’s image of standing before the face of Christ: “when did we see you hungry?” (v. 37).

What is judgment? It is nothing else but standing before the poor face of Christ and giving an account of how we have loved that face in this life. An accounting of our deeds, yes. But more than that, an accounting of how we have loved the human face of Christ, in its most distressing disguises.


How can we learn to embrace that face?

“Grant the gift of remission . . . . My prayers are not worthy, but you are good, be good to me.”

In the end, all is Jesus. We beg Jesus to help us to see his face in this world, so that we can rejoice to see his face when this world ends.

What does “Christ-centered” mean in your prayer life?

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?

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?