What about the Day of Wrath?

My thoughts today may have particular import during Lent, but they touch on a subject that is much more far-reaching. Indeed, it is a topic that ought to be inscribed along the horizon of one’s imagination in some permanent form, if one is at all serious about his mortal (and, let’s face it, his eternal) existence.

I am speaking of the Last Judgment. What brought this inconvenient topic to my mind — other than the fact that, being 72 years old, I think about it a great deal of the time — was a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Boston’s Symphony Hall my wife and I attended a couple of days ago.

Strictly speaking, a “performance” of the Requiem is an anomaly, since it plucks the thing from its context (the words form the Sequence in the Mass for the Dead). At the same time, in the hands of a Tomas Luis de Victoria or a Mozart, the authenticity of the thing is not altogether lost.

The words are no longer ordinarily in use in the Church’s liturgy, so if they are ever heard at all, it will be only in a musical setting. To what extent listeners’ attention might be flagged down by the terror of these words is a question.

Non-religious concert-goers will, of course, have the luxury of placing the text in a category with the texts of Dido and Aeneas and The Nibelungenlied — affecting, no doubt, but scarcely threatening. Protestants who inherit from Calvin the notion of the “perseverance of the saints” may happily dismiss the thing as typical of late mediaeval fright about one’s destiny (the text is 13th century). Thoroughly modern Catholics will find it all somewhat embarrassing and hope no one will tar them with any such primitive brush. So who will ponder this awful Sequence?

Day of Wrath — that Day of which both David and the Sibyl speak, when the earth will be reduced to ashes — that Day of fear when the Judge appears and everything comes under scrutiny — with a horn sending out an enormous sound over the region of the sepulchres — with both Death and Nature stupefied at the sight of men rising up in response to the summons to Judgment — [Who will hear any of this as seriously apocalyptic?]

Then a Book will be proffered, in which everything is contained, and from which the world will be judged.

When the Judge sits down, everything that has been concealed will be revealed. Nothing will remain unavenged.

What will I, miserable wretch, say then? What patron will I appeal to, when the just are scarcely safe?

The above lines are a very wooden, sketchy, and schoolboyish approximation of the opening Latin lines of the Sequence. (The poetic renderings that one finds in old manuals of devotion are, as a rule, insupportably saccharine, and, in order to keep up English rhyme, must stray far afield from the original.)

The Sequence goes on to appeal to the Rex tremendae majestatis for pity and invokes Jesus, reminding Him of His mercy in suffering on the cross for my redemption (the voice speaking is first-person singular by this time). The language of repentance is extreme, as is the supplication that one be rescued from damnation. “Among the sheep and separate from the goats, place me on the right hand, when the wicked are confounded and consigned to bitter flames: call me with the blessed.”

But then the intercessions for all of the dead return: Merciful Jesus, grant to them rest.

And then the great Offertory:

Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, deliver all the souls of the faithful dead from the punishments of hell and from the deep lake; free them from the mouth of the lion, nor let Tartarus swallow them, nor let them fall into oblivion; but may Thy standard-bearer Michael to lead them into Thy holy light, as Thou didst promise to Abraham and his seed.

Sacrifices and prayers, with praise, we offer to Thee, O Lord; do Thou receive these in behalf of the souls for whom we make this memorial today; cause them to rise from death to life, as Thou didst promise to Abraham and his seed.

This whole line of thought is, to say the very least, remote from the lines along which our own thoughts like to run nowadays. Indeed, the stark violence of the language is too rough, we will object: Surely this is not the gospel of love and light and hope? We never hear this sort of thing even from the pulpit; it all went out at the end of the Middle Ages.

Perhaps it did. The question might be put, however: Should it have? Was there a new Revelation somewhere in there that changed the whole picture, so that sin was no longer sin, and God’s judgment on sin was waived, and the human soul’s need for His pardon was found to be superfluous, and the sacrifice of Calvary not something to be urged quite so stridently, and hell certainly not to be spoken of among modern and courteous souls?

It might also be politely urged here, “Oh, but it’s a question of emphasis, surely?” One doesn’t want too much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s not healthy. We need to be upbeat. But what is authentic, godly upbeatness? Whatever it is, it can’t be built on fastidiousness and Hallmark cards. It had better be grounded on the apostolic gospel of my sin and God’s grace in supplying a remedy for that sin (and hence my real danger of everlasting loss) in sending the Savior.

Death is never treated with euphemisms in Sacred Scripture. If the event of someone’s funeral is not the occasion for a pensive facing of all that is at stake in our mortality and in what God has done for us in His Mercy, then what, pray, might that event be?


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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