Dies Irae

Biblical prophet at Moissac Abbey on Le Chemin de St. Jacques

Biblical prophet at Moissac Abbey on Le Chemin de St. Jacques

Mr. McCleery, my seventh grade Latin teacher, had us memorize verses of the Dies Irae, a medieval chant describing the Last Judgment in strikingly lurid language. Most boys in junior high do not walk around chanting Latin poetry about the end of the world, but I rather enjoyed it. The tune was catchy, and those terse rhyming triplets beat time like the sensuous energy of a drum circle.

Dies irae, dies illa, 
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Day of wrath, O day of mourning,
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heav’n and earth in ashes burning.

The text of Dies Irae is inspired by the first chapter of Zephaniah, which was one of the eucharistic readings last Sunday. I sometimes wonder what churchgoers think about when asked to consider “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom.” In Syria or Ukraine, it’s just the latest news. But for those of us not living in one of history’s infernos, Zephaniah might be dismissed as a colorful crank carried away by the thrill of his own hyperbole.

The effect of the Bible’s more fiery rhetoric is often muted by the flat, inexpressive way it is usually read – or worse, mumbled – in the typical liturgy, as though no one really means it. Readers of prophetic texts should be given bullhorns. They should walk among the people as they shout, looking them in the eye.

I will bring such distress upon people
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.[i]

The church growth people might have something to say about that sort of messaging, but there is no denying that the prophets are working hard to get our attention. And in these last weeks of the Christian year, both the Sunday lectionary and the daily liturgical readings resound with the trumpet blasts of biblical warnings. People get ready. History’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Those prophetic rants have sometimes been read as endorsements of sacred violence – angry outbursts of a moody and unpredictable god – but God’s best friends have long rejected that crude picture as a tragic misreading of the divine. Nevertheless, there is no denying the violent imagery woven into some biblical texts, and we must find a way to make sense of it.

Walter Brueggemann explains that the prophets “speak in images and metaphors that aim to disrupt, destabilize, and invite to alternative perceptions of reality … [They] speak in outrageous and extreme figures because they intend to disrupt the ‘safe’ construals of reality, which are sponsored and advocated by the dominant opinion makers.”[ii] In other words, prophets blow up the old paradigms in order to make room for the new. They take seriously the power of language both to enslave and to liberate.

Zephaniah targets those “who rest complacently on their dregs,” who are blinded by their illusions, who assume divine indifference to the damage they do to the poor, the vulnerable, and the whole interdependent system of life on earth. We can find similar voices in our own time.

German writer W. G. Sebald’s apocalyptic poem, After Nature, is as harrowing as anything in the Bible. As he contemplates the dark and barren landscape of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, painted in 1505, Sebald finds a predictive warning of the planet’s own death unless we change our ways.

Here in an evil state of erosion
and desolation the heritage of the ruining
of life that in the end will consume
even the very stones has been depicted.[iii]

Today the United States Senate came just one vote shy of approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive fossil fuels project to enrich a few people at the expense of the whole earth. The effects of exploiting the Canadian tar sands, according to climate scientist James Hansen, could well be of biblical proportions.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.[iv]

Hansen concludes that Keystone and its aftermath “will be game over for the climate.” The apocalypse was defeated today in the Senate, but there will be another vote early next year, when many of the “no” votes will be out of office. Alarmingly, the next head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will be a climate change denier who believes in a god who would never allow earth’s climate to be affected by the actions of mortals. If the senior senator from Oklahoma were to study his Bible, he might find that God takes human freedom far more seriously than he does. We do have the power to destroy God’s creations and disrupt the fragile balances of life.

The prophets are trying to make us renounce that power before it is too late. When Zephaniah warns of “a terrible end” he isn’t simply condemning us; he’s trying to save us. The “day of wrath” will not be an arbitrary vengeance from the sky, but the sum of innumerable bad choices here on earth. Zephaniah and his fellow prophets hold before us a chillingly graphic picture of where those choices are headed. What has been called the wrath of God is really something bearing our own signature.

Will God ride to the rescue? In a poem called “Emmanuel’s Nightmare,” African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks wonders what it might be like if we were simply left to our own devices. She imagines the Second Coming of a Christ who would “clean the earth / of the dirtiness of war.” But the Savior finds himself thwarted. Humans love war too much. It is “what they lived for.” So God’s Son gives up and goes home. Mission not accomplished. “He had not the heart / To take away their chief sweet delectation.”[v] 346

The prospect of being abandoned to our own suicidal impulses is not a happy one, but – thankfully – it is not in fact the story we tell. God has destined us not for wrath but for salvation.[vi] The means of that better destiny will turn out to be quite surprising, not at all like the terrible clamor of the Dies Irae. But that is a tale for another day.

[i] Zephaniah 1:17

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 625

[iii] W.G. Sebald, After Nature, q. in Colin Riordan, “Ecocentrism in Sebald’s After Nature,” in W.G. Sebald – A Critical Companion, eds. J.J. Long & Anne Whitehead (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 51

[iv] New York Times, May 9, 2012

[v] Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal, eds., Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 346

[vi] I Thessalonians 5:9

4 thoughts on “Dies Irae

  1. Pingback: The questions that matter | The religious imagineer

  2. Pingback: Day 345: Zephaniah | Sandie's Bible Blog

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