Mozart and Verdi have set it to music in their Requiems. Berlioz and Listz 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
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 13
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 7
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.
century Old Testament prophet Zephaniah 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
The chant of the
(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
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
practically disappeared from Catholic worship. Some felt that the hymn “smacked of a negative spirituality inherited from the
…that [it] overemphasized judgment, fear, and despair. …they replaced [it] with texts urging Christian hope…( Annibale Bugnini,
The Reform of the Liturgy: 1948–1975
, p. 773). Today, the vigorous beauty of the
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
continue to touch the human heart.
The hymn describes 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
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.
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
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
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
’s comforting plea:
Righteous Judge! for sin's pollution
Grant Thy gift of absolution,
Ere the day of retribution.
is truly a prayer of hope and mercy, even for our day!