December 2013 – January 2014
Vol. XIX, No. 9
The Dies Irae and the Last Day
by Bishop Arthur Serratelli
Mozart and Verdi have set it to music in their Requiems. Berlioz and Liszt have borrowed its sober tones for their own compositions. Even modern-day film and TV composers have borrowed generously from its treasure, e.g., “Young Bess,” “The Mission,” and “The Shining.” The Dies Irae holds the distinction of being the oldest piece of music most frequently quoted.
Some have called it “the most sublime of all uninspired hymns.” Others have praised it as a masterpiece of Latin poetry, solitary in its excellence. Among the gems of music, it is the diamond. No doubt its engaging melody attracts attention. The monotony of its steady rhythm calms the spirit and directs the listener’s mind to its subject. But it is the subject of this great hymn that unlocks its popularity.
Dated from the 13th century, the Dies Irae flashes before the imagination the Last Judgment at the end of the world. People of every age have had an ongoing curiosity about the end. The founder of the American Adventist movement predicted that the end of the world would take place between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He was wrong. He predicted the new date of October 22, 1844. Wrong again. More recently, Harold Camping predicted the end of the world in 1994. When the end did not come, he became even more precise. He gave the date, May 21, 2011, and the time, sunset in Jerusalem (6 p.m.) He was wrong.
From the predictions of pagan Romans in the 7th century until those of modern Christians, no one has pinpointed the moment of earth’s demise. As Jesus Himself said, “You know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13). Yet, all the false prophecies of the past have not been able to quench curiosity about the end time. Even Sacred Scripture arouses our interest.
The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah (7th-century BC) portrays the last day as the moment when God will sweep away “everything from the face of the earth” (1:2). He describes it as:
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 — (Zeph 1:15-16)
The chant of the Dies Irae (the day of wrath) takes its title from these verses of the Old Testament. It also takes up its theme. When God comes as Judge to separate the good from the evil, there will be fear and horror. Even nature herself will tremble and quake. The Dies Irae plaintively, mournfully, fearfully hits this note at the very beginning.
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
After the revisions made to the Liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, the Dies Irae practically disappeared from Catholic worship. Some felt that the hymn “smacked of a negative spirituality inherited from the Middle Ages … that [it] overemphasized judgment, fear, and despair…. [T]hey replaced [it] with texts urging Christian hope … (Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy: 1948-1975, p. 773). Today, the vigorous beauty of the Dies Irae is quietly tucked away in the appendix of the Liturgy of the Hours for optional use during the last week of Ordinary time. It may be buried, but not silenced. The themes of the Dies Irae continue to touch the human heart.
The hymn describes the last day as the appointed time when
Death is struck, and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its Judge an answer making.
Lo! the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded:
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
All our sins, great and small, will come to light on that day. No wonder the hymn’s images and haunting melody conjure up fear and trembling. We know that we are sinners and our sins deserve punishment. Hence, the fear and trembling. These emotions no longer loom large in much of our modern piety. But, they remain part of the human condition.
When our bodies are racked with pain, we know that something is not right. We submit to the examination and judgment of our doctors to discover any illness so that they may remedy it. Even as we await the results of medical examinations or grapple with life-threatening diseases, our faith does not banish fear and trembling. We want to be whole. We want to live. We fear to be less than we are.
Fear is information. When recognized and understood for what it is, it helps us to respond to situations that threaten us. President Franklin Roosevelt astutely remarked, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He was right. Once we exorcize fear from our emotional arsenal, we surrender a helpful weapon in the battle of life itself. The Dies Irae uses the reality of fear in a wholesome way. With its somber tones and terrifying lyrics, it makes us face our own fear of death and judgment and then respond appropriately in the present moment.
On that final day when God will come to destroy all of His enemies and establish His reign over all, we sinners will not escape His judgment. Far from paralyzing us, this sobering thought makes us realize that, even though this temporal world is passing away, what we do in this world has eternal consequences. All our free choices are part of the battle to establish the reign of God in this world. The end will be a revelation of what is already happening. But, before the end, we have time to do good and avoid evil.
Furthermore, the Dies Irae makes us face the truth about ourselves and God. We do not always align ourselves on the side of God. Pride. Anger. Self-sufficiency. Greed. Lust. Selfishness. These vices and others cast their dark shadow across the choices we so often make. We are sinners. Yet we have not been abandoned. Jesus, who will come at the end of time as Judge of the living and the dead, has already come. By His Cross and Resurrection, He is exalted as our Savior and Redeemer. Of this consoling the truth, the hymn reminds us:
King of Majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us
Think, kind Jesu! — my salvation
Caused thy wondrous Incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation
Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me,
On the Cross of suffering bought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Thus, even as we listen to the Dies Irae and acknowledge our sins as worthy of punishment, we are reminded that we are not left without a prayer when we stand before the Judge. Jesus, who extended His arms of mercy wide upon the Cross, is already winning for us here and now the victory over sin and death.
At the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year, we stretch our eyes to the culmination of all time when “the end will come, when [Christ] … has put all his enemies under his feet … so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:24-28). Thus, the Church has well placed the Dies Irae in the Liturgy of the Hours just as we enter Advent. But, it is not only in Advent, but every day, that we prepare for that final day. Working out our “salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), we can confidently make our prayer the Dies Irae’s comforting plea:
Righteous Judge! for sin’s pollution
Grant Thy gift of absolution,
Ere the day of retribution.
The Dies Irae is truly a prayer of hope and mercy, even for our day!
Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, is chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, and president of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. This article was published in the November 22 edition of The Beacon, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, and appears here with permission.