Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, a vibrant parish community in Washington, D.C. A native of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, his interest in the priesthood stemmed from his experience as a church musician. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and was ordained in 1989. A pastor since 2000, he also has led Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and at the White House in past years. Monsignor Pope is often featured in New Advent and Our Sunday Visitor and is the primary author for the Archdiocese of Washington’s blog, and we are honored that he will be sharing some of his best blogs on theology, art, music, and culture here at Amazing Catechists.
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.
During Advent, we read a lot from the Prophet Isaiah. Therefore, for my own meditation and yours, I offer the following reflection on Isaiah, the man and his message. Each of the issues with which he dealt is still with us to today, even though we live in a far more secular world than he ever could have imagined. Let’s consider key elements of his life, struggle, and message. If you would like to read a shorter mediation and already have a firm grasp on Isaiah’s life and teachings, you can skip down to the section below labeled in red:Lessons from Isaiah.
The Prophet Isaiah was born in 760 BCand is further identified as the son of Amoz (1:1). His name in Hebrew (Yeshayahu) means “Yah[weh] is Salvation.” And he lived this name well, insisting that Judah’s Kings and people trust only in God, make no alliances with foreign nations, and refuse to fear anyone but God.
He lived in the terrible period following the great severing of the northern kingdom of Israel (with its ten tribes) from the southern kingdom of Judah. In the period prior to Isaiah’s birth, the northern kingdom had known almost nothing but godless kings. Idolatry there had begun from the start, when the first king, Jeroboam, erected golden calves (of all things!) in two northern cities and strove to dissuade northern Jews from going south to Jerusalem (in Judah) to worship. Other ugly moments in the north featured King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, who advanced the worship of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal, and who persecuted Elijah and the few who sought to stay true to the faith of Abraham.
By the time Isaiah began his ministry (742 BC), the division was some 200 years old. Though living in Judah to the south, Isaiah both prophesied doom for the north and warned the kings of the south to rebuke wickedness and fears and to form no foreign alliances against the growing menaces to the north (Israel) and the east (Assyria). He warned of northern destruction here: In a single day the Lord will destroy both the head and the tail … The leaders of Israel are the head, and the lying prophets are the tail (Is 9:14-15). But his own Judah remained the focus of his concern and warnings.
Isaiah’s ministry in Judah and his mission spanned four Kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is likely that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, and this gave him both access and influence. His eloquence and influence also suggest that he had acquired a royal education. Little else is known of him personally.
Though the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah describe the wickedness of the people of Judah and the need for their repentance and his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic call seems to have begun in 742 BC, “the year King Uzziah died,” and is described in Chapter 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:1–8).
While God accepts his offer, He warns that Isaiah’s message will be resisted. Isaiah asks, sadly,
“How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, 12 and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned (Is 6:11–13).
Sure enough, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah describe a fiercely stubborn resistance to Isaiah’s calls. However, the prophesied destruction of the south would not occur until 587 BC, long into the future, due in part to some limited success Isaiah had in working with King Hezekiah at a critical moment.
The winds of war were blowing. Assyria was expanding and the ominous clouds of its destructive conquest were moving westward. Israel to the north joined in a coalition to fight Assyria and tried to strong-arm Judah to join, threatening invasion and overthrow of King Ahaz if there was no agreement. Let’s just say that Ahaz was anxious, and all of Judah with him—threats to the north, threats to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west. There was no real escape.
God dispatches Isaiah to Ahaz with the following message:
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands … [who have] devised evil against you, saying, 6 “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it,” 7 thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass (Is 7:4–7).
In other words, trust God. Make no alliances and do not give in to your fears! Stand your ground! God offers Ahaz a sign that a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, Immanuel (God is with us). But Ahaz cops a false piety attitude about not putting God to the test. Yet it is Ahaz who fails the test. Caving in, he sends tribute to Assyria and offers to become a vassal state.
In the end, this frees Assyria to concentrate on destroying Israel to the north. And while it can be argued that Israel’s wickedness brought her destruction, Ahaz helped seal the fate of fellow Jews in the north by his fearful and self-serving political calculations. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC. The survivors were carried off into exile. Farewell to the Ten Lost Tribes. Only Judah and the Levites in the south remained intact.
Though Judah was spared, the relief from threatening Assyria was to be temporary. Meanwhile, Ahaz’s Son, Hezekiah, became king (ruling from 715-687 BC). Here was a better king, more faithful, more trusting, and thus less fearful. He rid Judah of any elements of Canaanite religious practice and courageously broke free of the alliance with Assyria by 705 BC. He fortified Jerusalem (and his faith) for the backlash that was sure to come from Assyria.
Sure enough, in 701 BC, Assyria came to collect back-due tribute and to assert who was boss. Jerusalem was surrounded with troops, and her fate seemed sealed. But Isaiah summoned Hezekiah and Judah to courage:
33 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow here, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord.35 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” 36And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (Is 37:33–36).
The Assyrian survivors left and returned by the way they came. Their king, Sennacherib returned home and was killed by his own sons.
A fear rebuked brought Judah victory. Now perhaps people would listen to Isaiah and trust God rather than foreign alliances! Well, not so fast. Hezekiah, who had been ill but miraculously recovered, started to get awfully friendly with the Babylonians, then emerging as a power to the east. Faith and trust are surely difficult things, especially for a king.
Since it looked like another alliance was forming with a pagan state, Isaiah warned,
5 “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 7 And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 8 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days” (Is 39:5–8).
Hezekiah’s selfish response reminds me of an old saying of my father’s: “People disappoint.” Alliances and dalliances with foreign lands and a corresponding lack of trust in God would continue to plague Judah despite miracles against Assyria.
We know little of Isaiah’s final demise. According to an extra-biblical tradition (and hinted at in Hebrews 11:37), he died by being sawed in half by Hezekiah’s unfaithful son Manasseh. Isaiah was dead but, if the tradition is true, Manasseh answered to God.
Lessons from Isaiah –
- Despite often disappointing results, Isaiah never gave up. God told him to prophesy and so he did. Isaiah lived what he preached. He feared God, not man. He never thought twice about going up to kings and declaring to their faces, “Thus saith the Lord!” He was willing to rebuke and encourage people regardless of their standing.
- In the end, Isaiah’s message is remarkably clear: Do not fear! Clearly, fear leads all of us to a lot of foolish decisions, and it is through fear that the devil holds us in bondage (Heb 2:15). The solution to fear is trust in God. And even if we were to get killed, we would still win, for the martyr’s crown would await us. Do not fear!
- Why were foreign alliances so troubling to Isaiah? First of all, they manifested a lack of trust in the Lord: “Can God save us? Maybe, but in case He doesn’t come through, let’s make sure we have a plan B.” Hmm … not much faith there! But second, and related, the secular states of today were unknown at that time. People and nations were deeply religious. Alliances with foreign lands meant marriages to foreign queens as well as adopting the false religions of those nations and queens. Can someone say, “Jezebel?” Or how about Solomon and his 1000 wives and all their foreign gods? It was his folly that led to a divided Jewish nation and that introduced the wicked practices of the Baals and other Canaanite atrocities. Thus, these alliances manifested a lack of trust in God and introduced, inevitably, the adultery of “sleeping with” other gods.
- For us, an admonition is in order as well. As a Church, we ought to be wary of too many entanglements or “partnerships” with our increasingly hostile secular government. Many strings come attached to the federal and state monies we accept to serve the poor, give tuition assistance, etc. Many compromises are increasingly demanded of us. Sadly, certain sectors of the Church, especially certain universities, are caving in to the power and slavery of money and are compromising on same-sex unions and providing contraception (and even abortifacients) to employees through health care plans. Large blocks of federal money are currently administered by Catholic charity organizations, etc. These entanglements increasingly demand compromises of us, and it is only going to get worse. Beware! We need to shift back to using our own monies to care for the poor and to be willing to say no to money that demands compromises we cannot make. Serving the poor is important, but we cannot let even that become an idol. And frankly, if we are using mostly government money, can we really say that WE are serving the poor? Are we not, rather, administering a government program? A certain Pope we all know recently warned that the Church is not an NGO.
- Individual Catholics would also do well to be more leery about political alliances. Too often, we allow political views to trump our faith. Catholics need to be Catholics first, and be willing to denounce sin and evil no matter who perpetrates it or promotes it.
- Alliances are often dangerous things. Too easily do we slip into adultery with the world. Beware! Compromise is ugly, and adultery is a disgraceful betrayal of the Lord, whom we should fear and love.
- Do not be afraid!
Saint Isaiah, pray for us!
Here are the summary notes from a talk I gave at the Parish of St. Columba, here in D.C.:
Many people think of Advent merely in terms of pre-Christmas time: office parties, shopping, decorating etc. But in the Church, Advent is more a penitential period, a time of preparation for both the Christmas Feast and the Second Coming of the Lord. The purple vestments signal penance. The faithful are encouraged to go to Confession, and the liturgical texts and readings emphasize readying for the coming of the Lord.
The theme of preparation (and much of the season itself) is couched in the dramatic struggle between light and darkness. This makes sense (at least in the northern hemisphere, where the darkness deepens and the days grow shorter). In these darkest days, we light candles and sing hymns that speak of the light that will come: Jesus the true Light of the World. Let’s take a look at Advent in three ways.
I. The Symbols of Darkness and Light – Outside, there is a great drama of light and darkness unfolding before us. The light is giving way to darkness. Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are getting very short, and they’re going to get even shorter. In Washington, D.C. (where I live), it is dark by 5:00 PM. On cloudy days, it is nearly dark by 4:00 PM. My brothers both live farther north: one in St. Paul and the other in Seattle. It gets dark even earlier there. There’s even a famous saying (probably by Yogi Berra), “It’s getting late very early out there.”
For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious. It is little more than an annoyance, as we must switch on the lights earlier. But think of those who lived not long before us in an age before electrical lights. Perhaps it was possible to huddle near a candle, oil lamp, or fire, but in the end, the darkness put a real stop to most things. Neither work, nor reading, nor most forms of recreation could take place. Darkness was a significant factor.
Some years ago, during a widespread power outage, I was struck at just how incredibly dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and the lights emanating from homes. Frankly, it was hard to venture out. I lost my bearings quickly and stumbled over some simple things like a curb and a fencepost. We moderns just aren’t used to this. Once, I toured Luray Caverns in the nearby Shenandoah Mountains. At the bottom of the caverns, hundreds of feet down, they gathered us near the center of a large cave and shut off the lights. The darkness was overwhelming. It was an almost physical feeling. I felt a wave of slight panic sweep over me and was so relieved when the lights came back on. I wondered, “Is this what it’s like to be blind?” Yes, light is very precious.
And so, here in a “deep and dark December,” the light continues to recede. The spiritual impact of this drama of light is brought into the Church. Our hymns turn to images of light. The darker it gets, the more candles we light on the Advent wreath. In the darkest days of December, our Advent wreath is at its brightest. As Scripture says, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world (John 1:5, 9). An old prayer says,Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.
As the drama of light and darkness outside continues, we arrive at December 21st and 22nd—the shortest, darkest days of the year. By December 23rd, the ancients could detect a slight return of the light. Now the morning star heralds something new, something brighter.
People, look East. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year …
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
And then, on December 24th, in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, the liturgy of Christmas begins: Christ is born and on December 25th a new light shines. From then on, the days get longer.
Yes, a great drama of light is unfolding before us. It is Advent. It is a time to recognize our need for the light and just how precious Jesus, the Light of the World, is. Ponder, in these darkest days, the beauty of the light. There are so many Advent hymns that set forth the dramatic images of light, darkness, and expectancy. They are too numerous to list here. However, click here if you wish to see some samples: Advent hymns that speak to the Light.
Of course, this external drama of light and darkness in nature is but a symbol of the great struggle between light and darkness in our world, our culture, our own hearts, and the hearts of all whom we love. It is the greatest drama of each of our lives. Will we choose to walk in the light or will we prefer the darkness? Our choice will determine our destiny. Judgment day is coming and we must be prepared by embracing the light of God’s truth and Jesus Himself, who is the Light of the World.
Thus, in Advent, we are summoned to understand how bad the darkness of sin really is, andwe are warned to prepare for the coming judgment. Almost all the readings of the first two weeks of Advent speak to this theme of warning and readiness. The Dies Irae, which most associate with the Latin Requiem Mass, was actually written as a hymn for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Now, of course, some may protest such “negative” themes for Advent. But remember, if we aren’t aware of the bad news, then the good news is no news. Hence, this Advent reflection on the seriousness of the dark reality of sin is to prepare us for even greater joy at the birth of a Savior, who is the Light of the World and can lead us out of the dark tomb of sin into the wonderful light of grace.
Hence, the symbols of light and darkness point to a real drama and remind us to be sober and serious about the trouble we’re in, why we really need a savior, and how good it is to greet the Light of the World … IF we are prepared.
II. Our Stance to the Light and Darkness – Ultimately we are either facing the light and welcoming Him, or facing and in the darkness. These are the only two stances possible. There is no third way. Are you walking in the light or are you standing in the darkness?
This is Our Moral Stance. Scripture warns in many places about the two ways of light and darkness, and admonishes us to stand and walk in the light. Here are just a few:
- (Ro 13:11–14) Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
- (1 Th 5:1–11) But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
- (Mt 6:22-24) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
- (2 Pe 1:19) And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Thus, we are warned what time it is, that judgment draws ever closer, and that we must walk and stand with the light and not be like those in darkness. The Advent season acknowledges the reality of deepening darkness, and that we must all the more run to the coming light, Jesus. We must walk in the light of His truth as set forth in His word, in the teachings of the Church, and in creation. We must seek the enlightenment of the Sacraments and live in honesty, integrity, and mutual fellowship with the Lord’s Body, the Church. This is to be our moral stance: toward the light and away from the darkness.
This is Our Liturgical Stance – Since we are discussing the season of Advent, we might also do well to mention something of our liturgical stance as well. Over the past few decades, our liturgical stance has become muddled and somewhat incoherent. What used to be a clear stance of a community facing East, has become an increasingly closed circle, a sort of image of a community closed in on itself, singing of itself, and referring incessantly to itself in song and (self-)congratulatory applause. Until about 1965, the almost universal liturgical stance was of a community all facing one direction (liturgical East, symbolized by the Crucifix more than by the compass), and being led there by a celebrant who could see where he was going. The celebrant, as alter Christus, represented Christ leading his people to the Father in adoration and thanksgiving. The priest, as a man, stood at the head of the community looking for Christ to come again. Scripture quite frequently attests that God will come “from the East.” (Again, it is less a matter of the compass and more a matter of the community all looking toward the liturgical East, the Cross.) Looking to the East for God to come is no arbitrary notion of a primitive religion. It is well attested in Scripture and makes sense based on the fact that the East is where the light comes from. Physical light is a symbol of the True Light, who is our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. Here are just a few Scripture references:
- (Mt 24:27–28) For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
- (Bar 4:36) Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God!
- (Eze 43:1–5) Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
- (Psalm 68:32-34) Sing to God, ye kingdoms of the earth: sing ye to the Lord: Sing to God, who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Behold he will give to his voice the voice of power: give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds!
This is not intended to be a full-length treatment of the “Ad orientem” question regarding the stance of the priest and the people. Here I only wish to note that our liturgical stance has become muddled. If it is true that our stance should be toward the Light, then why are we facing all sorts of different and “opposing” directions in the liturgy? Why do we not all face East together for the great Eucharistic Prayer, as we did for over 19 centuries? While it is fitting that the Liturgy of the Word be celebrated toward the people, it seems that the Eucharistic Prayer is more suitably proclaimed with the whole community (priests included) facing to the East—toward God—for it is to God that the prayer is directed and it is to God that the people are led in admiration, thanksgiving, and pilgrimage. The Advent hymn says it well: “People look East, the time is near!”
III. The Summons to the Light – Having laid out the great drama of light and darkness and heard that we should take a stand for and toward the light, we note that Advent also proclaims, through a series of biblical texts and prayers, a warning to those who either reject the light outright or just fail to prepare for it. Here are just a few biblical texts:
- (Ho 6:5) Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.
- (Mt 25:6–11) Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish maidens said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
- (Mal 4:1–2) For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
- (Jn 3:16–21) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
There is not sufficient time in this post to comment on each of these texts above except to saythat they summon us to the light in a spirit of readiness, having first prepared ourselves by becoming accustomed to the light and the fire of God’s love. If we are not ready, the light will seem blinding and the fiery love unbearable, and we will recoil in wrath, rather then rejoice in wonder.
Pay attention to these Advent themes. It’s getting late very early these days. Consider this a warning from the natural world (the Book of Creation), which the Church picks up in her liturgy. Prepare the way of the Lord! Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand. Walk in the light! If we do, light, all glorious and unending, will be ours:
There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; 4 they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Re 22:3–5).
This is our future, IF we are faithful and allow the Lord to enlighten us now so that we can love the future light of ten thousand megawatts. Walk in the Light!
A blessed Advent to all.
Most Catholics are unaware of the fact that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. Their designs stretch all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our church layouts still follow that plan and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Our traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.
There is not time to develop these roots at length in this post today, though I hope to do so in a series of future posts.
Sadly, in recent decades there has been a casting aside of these biblical roots in favor of a “meeting house” approach to church design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather, the idea was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.
In some cases the liturgical space came to be considered “fungible” in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This thinking began to be set forth as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. And even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.
Thus churches began to look less and less like churches and more and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.
That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the meaning of church art as something more than merely that it is “pretty.” They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture as revealing the faith and expressing heavenly realities.
Take stained glass for instance. Stained glass is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.
Stained glass depicted biblical stories, saints, Sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. And so the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.
But stained glass also served another purpose: acting as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. Now among other things, Heaven is described in the Book of Revelation as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in the foundations of those walls:
One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).
Thus because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. And in the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.
The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now. In my own parish church, the floors are a green jasper color, and the clerestory walls, red jasper. On the clerestory are painted the saints gathered before the throne-like altar in Heaven (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7).
Yes, it’s amazing! I stand in my church and realize its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries: sursum corda (hearts aloft)!
The photo above is of the Sainte-Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel located in Paris, France.
Here’s a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ you are the Light of the world).
Here’s another video I created. Many of the photos in the video can be found here:
And finally, if you are interested, here is a video I made some time ago featuring some of the architectural details of my own parish.
by Monsignor Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington
Amazing Catechists welcomes Monsignor Charles Pope as a new contributing author to Amazing Catechists. Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, a vibrant parish community in Washington, D.C. A native of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, his interest in the priesthood stemmed from his experience as a church musician. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and was ordained in 1989. A pastor since 2000, he also has led Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and at the White House in past years. Monsignor Pope is often featured in New Advent and Our Sunday Visitor and is the primary author for the Archdiocese of Washington’s blog, and we are honored that he will be sharing some of his best blogs on theology, art, music, and culture here at Amazing Catechists. Monsignor Pope has just released his first book The Ten Commandments by TAN Books, a division of Saint Benedict Press.