Wednesday, October 12, 2022

379. Dies irae, upside-down

The Dies irae ("Day of wrath"), from the Roman Catholic mass for the dead, is a dark and scary depiction of the final judgment and its terrors. That's certainly a valid, scriptural point of view around death and burial. I mean, it takes its cue from Zephaniah 1:15-16 and drops many other scriptural references, such as David and the Prophet's oracles, the imagery of the final trumpet, the Book of Life, the Judge on his seat, the sinful woman, the dying thief, the sheep and the goats, etc. It acknowledges that whoever we're burying must now face the eternal Judge, a fact that the living can profit from thinking about. It also does, gradually, permit a slow drip of gospel comfort to lighten the prevailing inky tint, with the tremendous King of majesty freely saving the redeemed, and Jesus being reminded that "I am the cause of Thy way" (freely interpreted as "You suffered for my salvation"), and that He "redeemed me by suffering on the cross" and, finally, it pleads desperately for mercy. So far, so good.

I like the Dies irae, don't get me wrong. I'm a classical music buff and I got to sing several settings of this sequence during my years with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus – including those in the Requiems by Mozart and Verdi (multiple times each). It tends to be a thrilling highlight. But also, I can't say that I don't also sympathize with Gabriel Faure, who omitted the Dies from his sweet, delicately sentimental Requiem, or with Brahms, who jettisoned all the liturgical texts and filled his German Requiem with selections from the Luther Bible, and whose closest analog to a Dies is "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras." Sometimes, I just wonder whether a funeral is the time to put the frighteners on people when, these days, the widely recognized objective seems to be comforting the mourners as much as possible. Even The Lutheran Hymnal sections its Dies irae translation (by William J. Irons) under "Judgment," suggesting more of an "end of the church year" usage.

So, here's an idea that's been percolating in the back of my mind. Let's see how far we can take a line-by-line inversion of the Dies irae into a comforting burial hymn, without it being less biblically and doctrinally Christian. I'll bet other people have done this, perhaps even in Latin, but I refused to look them up because I didn't want to end up plagiarizing anyone (or getting discouraged and dropping the whole thing). The tune, of course, will be Dies irae – the plainsong version in The Lutheran Hymnal and both the 1993 and 2021 versions of Christian Worship.

Oh, that Day of jubilation
At the promised consummation,
When we'll see the new creation!

Christ will come with comfort heady,
Having made their mansions ready
Who'd believed His promise steady.

Oh, the throaty trumpet speaking,
Death's trusteeship swiftly breaking
And the grave's dear guests awaking!

See the elements transforming,
Christ His proper work performing,
Sin's redoubts, death's prison storming!

See the book, wherein are listed
All who in His grace persisted,
Who by faith this age resisted!

See the Judge, o'er all presiding,
Life or death for each deciding
With the cross His measure guiding.

Oh, to plead, that solemn moment,
My baptism's blest enrollment
In my Lord's blood-bought atonement!

O my King in triumph glorious,
Think not on my way notorious,
But my Savior's, so laborious!

Think, dear Jesus! Man's salvation
Caused Your wondrous incarnation;
Bring Your purpose to completion!

On the cross Your suffering bought me;
By Your gospel's pow'r You sought me,
And to saving faith You brought me.

Knowing, Lord, of sin's pollution
You have granted absolution,
Overrule the prosecution!

Put behind me shame and weeping,
All my guilt from knowledge sweeping,
My appeal in mercy keeping.

At the table You have granted
Your own blood for me decanted
And Your body in me planted.

What more need be demonstrated?
With You am I saturated,
Wherein is my hope located.

Oh, forever to be grazing
With Your flock in glory blazing!
Hasten, Lord, Your servant raising!

EDIT: Had I only known!

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