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Dies Irae

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

In November of 1999, I had the unique opportunity to join choirs from other 7 countries around the world

to sing Hector Berlioz’ Requiem in Dortmund, Germany.

My husband was in a master’s program in choral conducting, and I was tagging along for this trip.

The community choir in this German city had invited us to commemorate the lives of those lost

in the world wars of the 20th century and to pray for peace in the 21st.

The Requiem Mass is the mass of the dead,

and Berlioz’ requires one of the largest musical forces of any orchestral music:

orchestra, four brass bands seated on the four corners of the stage to simulate the sound of battle,

and a choir of 500 voices.

Part of its text, the Dies Ire, comes from our old testament reading today from Zephaniah:

Day of Wrath

Day of Distress and Anguish

Day of Ruin and Devastation

Day of Darkness and gloom

Day of Clouds and Thick Darkness

The musical rendering of this text is terrifying

conjuring up images of final judgment

an epic battle of good versus evil

and the earth swallowing up people into everlasting punishment.

In the American choir, we had judgments of our own going on.

We were all young singers, most were in the Masters of Music program at Yale.

An elite group—or so we thought.

The host choir from Dortmund, were middle aged singers, and some not well trained.

It was a community choir after all, not an auditioned choir of soon to be professional musicians.

But as the elite musicians that we were, we felt compelled to point out these differences.

We criticized their strained singing among ourselves

we complained about the conductor, the seating arrangements,

and how hard it was to hear and see over 500 people.

“It is as if a man, going on a journey summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them…

the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground

and hid his master’s money.”

We were pretty much like that slave—given the opportunity of a lifetime

to travel, to sing with people from around the world,

to commemorate the war dead and pray for peace—

and we buried it under our hubris and complaints.

But our judgmental exterior began to crack the second day of rehearsals

The Dortmund choir brought chocolates, and gave them to us in a gesture of welcome.

Even though we didn’t speak German, we could tell from their faces what it meant to have us there.

At the end of evening rehearsal, the Israeli choir broke into a rousing version of a folksong, and everyone clapped.

Then the Russians broke into song, then the Japanese

one after another, these groups just had songs inside that they had memorized and could share—

and my choir of almost professionals had nothing.

We didn’t know anything by heart.

It occurs to me now, looking back on it, that some of the other singers

may have had less ‘talent,’ as we use the word;

but they had plenty of talent the way Jesus uses the word.

A talent was a silver coin, comparable to 15 years worth of wages.

IF you had that kind of wealth, it was prudent to invest it somewhere.

Like the first two slaves in Jesus’ parable, the Dortmund folks had made an investment in us,

inviting us all to sing.

They shared what they had, and it multiplied.

The night of the performance came.

We were in a soccer arena, and several thousand people attended.

We sang the terrifying Dies Ire

We sang the bitter Lacrymosa, the tears of sorrow.

And then we sang the Sanctus.

Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts.

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

The words are sung by a tenor soloist

and the melody is unspeakably beautiful, sweet and tender.

The choir quietly echoes the tenor over the sustained chords of the strings.

It’s like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds.

I was caught up in the music like everyone else--

But the piece is over 90 minutes long.

My arms were aching from holding my music for so long.

So during the tenor solo, I quietly began to switch the folder from one arm to another.

This turned out to be a bad idea.

The music in the folder was not fastened in,

and during the transfer, the music began to slip, and then the whole folder.

As I felt it slide

All I could think of how awful it would be to hear the clap of the folder clattering to the floor

during that tender tenor solo.

I caught the folder just as it slipped off my arm,

and with a flap-a-flap-a-flap! I clapped it to my side, as everyone around me stared.

“As for this worthless slave, throw her into the outer darkness,

where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I was mortified. Completely ashamed.

Here people had travelled from around the world to sing this piece

to pray for peace

and I ruined the most precious part of the whole work.

I had been ridiculing others only to mess it up myself.

After the concert I could not look my choir director in the eye.

I found my husband, and said, “I can’t believe I did that.”

And he said, “Did what?”

He hadn’t even heard.

Neither had my choir director, or the conductor, or the audience.

Day of wrath, day of judgment.

It can be hard to hear these words from our lessons

because they so closely resemble the bad news of our world

You wicked and lazy slave! sounds like the teacher who puts kids on the bad citizen’s list

or the verbally abusive parent who calls their child ‘good for nothing.’

Trumpet blast and battle cry remind us of the wars around our globe,

and ‘the whole earth shall be consumed’ sounds like ecological disaster.

How can we hear good news in any of that?

It makes us want to take what little is ours, bury it in the ground, and protect ourselves.

And yet I am reminded that prophets always gave their words of judgment in the hope

that the people would turn around.

I am reminded that in Jesus’ parable there were two other slaves

slaves who did not see their master has harsh and punishing

but rather as joyful and generous.

In each case, the slave got what they thought they had coming to them.

Christians have long held that at the end of time, when Jesus returns, there would be judgment--

A final accounting for right and wrong, bringing all things to justice.

Whether or not we think of Judgment Day, we walk around with guilt and shame for what we have done

and what we have left undone.

Some of it is worth repenting of--

and some demands our immediate attention and action,

to make amends for our personal wrongs or to undo the harm of our society’s greed and lust for power.

But some is simply our projection –

Seeing God as critical and judging because we feel guilty

when the true reality is that God moved on a long time ago from judging us

and because of Jesus, sees us now as children.

We are both beloved and broken, yet worth entrusting the world to.

The Day of the Lord is coming.

That’s what these final weeks of the church year are about, the coming of Christ.

How we live our lives matters.

it affects those around us, people across the globe, and those who come after us.

But let us not presume that whether we have managed our talents well or buried them in the ground

is the only thing that matters.

The Gospel of John says that on the cross, Jesus draws all people to himself.

God’s judgement for us is out of love; God wants us to do better for ourselves and the world.

God has entrusted us with enormous treasure

Our friends and family

Our skills and opportunities

This planet, our island home.

But the greatest treasure of all is this:

God accepts us—As St. Paul says, there is no condemnation in Christ.

God’s acceptance of us sets us free.

Sets us free to make positive changes in our lives and world

Sets us free to show God’s face of love to others.

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