Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Day of Wrath

Like just over 50% of his fellow Americans, Father Anonymous arose this morning in a bitter mood, ashes on his tongue and sulfur on his breath.  No doubt like a few of them, he also had a scrap of Latin running through his brain:
Die irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla;
Teste David cum Sibylla
This is, as readers will surely know, one of the most famous hymns of the medieval church.  Likely written in the 13th century by Friar Thomas of Celano, a friend of St Francis, it seems to have been used first as a hymn for Advent and then, more commonly, as the Sequence for All Souls' Day, and sometimes in Masses for the dead.

The Dies irae speaks to the eschatological dread common to the Middle Ages.  In a common English translation, it begins:
The day of wrath, that dreadful day,
Shall the whole world in ashes lay
As David and the Sibyl say.
This misses the beauty of solvet, a word with two meanings -- to end, and to break up -- and naturally the source of our words dissolve and resolve. Sir Walter Scott's "when Heaven and Earth shall pass away" is better, but our gut tells us that a superior translation is still waiting to be made.

Another quirk of the opening lines is that some people (apparently the French) didn't want the pagan Sibyl to share equal billing with King David, so they altered the verse to read Crucis expandens vexilla, "spreading out banners of the Cross," or something like that.   This leads to translations such as:
Day of wrath, o day of mourning,See once more the Cross returning -- Heav'n and earth in ashes burning!
Anyway, the song continues in the same vein.  The sinner lives in fear of his returning Judge, and asks the one who absolved the Magdalene to forgive him too, yada-yadda-yadda. Whether or not it is good poetry may be a matter of opinion (we don't think so), but it has certainly been popular through the years. The rhythm is strong, the imagery is vivid, and -- Samhain be damned -- it was work like this that helped create our beloved Halloween.

It is also, from a Lutheran perspective, theologically dubious.  This is the sort of preaching that does more to torment souls than comfort them, the sort of popular Christianity that seeks obedience through fear.  Mind you, we have a conundrum here, since there is nothing wrong with encouraging repentance -- indeed, the First Thesis is that a Christian's whole life should be one of repentance.

In any case, we are rambling now.  Suffice it to say that these last hours have been difficult ones, and it does indeed seem to us as to many Americans that the end is nigh.  It seemed that way in the 13th century, too. And indeed, those were terrible times, as these are terrible times.  But the world survived, the Church survived, and will continue to survive until God is good and ready.  We can sing about the End Times all we want, but they are ultimately a product not of our sin but of God's grace.

And here's the song, for those who really want to enter into the day's mood of depression and anxiety:

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