Here in the heart of Advent, we are considering how prepared we are for the Lord to come again. Either He will come to us or we will go to Him, but either way we must prepare. In today’s post I’d like to consider some teachings about the Day of Judgment, from an Advent hymn that most do not know is an Advent hymn. Tomorrow I would like to consider the great Parousia, wherein the saved enter into glory with the Lord.
Regarding the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, Judgment Day,” I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is the current sequence hymn for Latin Requiem Masses, the Dies Irae. This gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant, and many composers such as Mozart and Verdi set the text to stirring musical compositions.
But the hymn was not in fact composed for funerals. Actually, it was composed, by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century, as an Advent hymn. Yes, that’s right, an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas; it is also about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.
Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will offer an inspiring English translation by W. J. Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin well enough. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae.) I will also offer the scriptural verses that serve as background to the text.
The syllables of this magnificent hymn hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila! Perhaps at times it is a bit heavy, but at the same time, no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).
The hymn opens on the Day of Judgment warning that the day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end to wickedness and lies:
- Day of wrath and doom impending,
- Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
- David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.
Yes, all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all. Consider two scriptural roots to this first verse:
- (Zeph 1:15-18) 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 men, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
- (2 Peter 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up … the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!
The “Sibyl” referred to here is most likely the Erythraean Sibyl, who wrote an acrostic on the name of the Christ in the Sibylline Oracles. These will figure prominently in tomorrow’s meditation on the Parousia.
And now the stunning, opening stunning scene of creation. All have been set aghast; our rapt attention turns to Jesus, who has come to judge the living and the dead and the whole world by fire:
- Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
- When from heaven the judge descendeth
- On whose sentence all dependeth!
- Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
- Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
- All before the throne it bringeth.
- 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.
- When the Judge his seat attaineth,
- And each hidden deed arraigneth:
- Nothing unavenged remaineth.
Here, too, many Biblical texts are brought to mind and masterfully united. Here are just a few of them:
- (Matt 25:31-33) When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left …
- (Matt 24:30-32) And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice: and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them.
- (Rev 20:12) And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
- (Rom 2:4-6) Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works:
- Luke 12:3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
- 2 Peter 3:14 and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
So, Judgment shall be according to our deeds; whatever is in the Book! Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy, and appeals to God for that mercy, basing it on the very will of God to save us. Was He not to be called Jesus because He would save us from our sins? (Mt 1:21) Did not God so love the world that He sent His own Son? And did He not come to save rather than condemn? (Jn 3:16-17) Did He not endure great sorrows and the cross itself to save us? Ah, Lord, do not now forsake me as I ponder my last end. Keep me faithful unto death!
- What shall I frail man be pleading?
- Who for me be interceding?
- When the just are mercy needing?
- King of majesty tremendous,
- Who does free salvation send us,
- Font of pity then befriend us.
- Think kind Jesus, 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?
- Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
- Grant thy gift of absolution,
- Before the day of retribution.
- Guilty now I pour my moaning:
- All my shame and anguish owning:
- Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
- Through the sinful Mary shriven,
- Through the dying thief forgiven,
- Thou to me a hope has given.
Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary, since for now we can call on that mercy. For of that day, though there will be wailing and grinding of teeth at a just condemnation, such tears will be of no avail then (Mt 13:42). Please Lord, let me not be with the goats at the left, but with the sheep on the right (Mt 25:33). And in the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. Only you, Jesus, can save me from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10):
- Worthless are my tears and sighing:
- Yet good Lord in grace complying,
- Rescue me from fire undying.
- With thy sheep a place provide me,
- From the goats afar divide me,
- To thy right hand do thou guide me.
- When the wicked are confounded,
- Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
- Call me with thy saints surrounded.
- Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
- See like ashes my contrition:
- Help me in my last condition.
And now comes the great summation: that day is surely coming! Grant me O Lord your grace to be ready; prepare me:
- Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
- from the dust of earth returning.
- Man for judgment must prepare him,
- Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
- Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
- Grant the dead eternal rest.
It is a masterpiece of beauty and truth, if you ask me. Some years ago, I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant ringing through her echoing arches. When I die, please sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the judge of all, and only grace and mercy will see me through. Perhaps the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. Amen.