This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
We turn our attention now to the judgment that awaits us all. Scripture speaks in the Book of Hebrews speaks rather plainly to this day for us all:
It is appointed for us to die once, and after that to face judgment (Heb 9:27).
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:10).
Furthermore, the Father judges no one, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father (Jn 5:22-23).
The Gospel of Luke emphasizes the reverence we should have for Jesus and for His role as our judge:
But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the One who, after you have been killed, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him (Lk 12:5).
There is a distinction to be made between our personal judgment and the general judgment of the whole world (e.g., Matt 24:31ff). In the general judgment, God’s truth and justice will be made manifest; all those who have loved evil will be seen by all for who and what they were. Further, every evil and foolish philosophy will be seen for the darkness it is. Today I will not be discussing this general judgment, but rather our personal judgment.
We need to attend to our own judgment and prepare for it by seeking God and His grace so as to be ready. St. Paul entrusts us to Jesus, who alone can save us from the coming wrath (see 1 Thess 3:13).
Indeed, Jesus was quite urgent and persistent in warning us of the judgment that is coming upon us. He did this in many ways, but most urgently in the parables.
In the posts over the next few days, we will be examining our certain and coming judgment. We will look at Jesus’ consistent warnings to prepare for our judgment. We will reflect on our tendency to be inattentive to our day of judgment. We will then ponder a way to prepare. Finally, we will consider how we can tip the scales of judgment toward mercy.
Today, let’s begin by pondering the text of the Dies Irae, which sets forth the biblical themes of our judgment as well as a plea for mercy. The context in this case is the general judgment, but its themes also apply in many ways to our personal judgment:
The hymn opens by referring to God’s “wrath.” (I’ve written more on wrath here.) Wrath is a term used to describe the complete incompatibility of sin in the presence of the All Holy One, a sinner brought into the Lord’s presence. We have every reason to be sober that the awesome holiness of God will disclose all that is in need of purification. The hymn begins as follows:
Day of wrath and doom impending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending,
David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.
No one can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. At the sound of the trumpet, the bodies of the dead will come forth from their tombs and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all:
Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.
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 judgement be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is written in the Book (Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6). Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy and appealing to God for it. The hope for mercy is based on the grace of God, His mercy, His incarnation, His seeking love, His passion and death, and the forgiveness He showed to Mary Magdalene and the good thief crucified on His right.
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding
When the just are mercy needing?
King of majesty tremendous,
Who does free salvation send us,
Font of pity then befriend us.
Think kind Jesus, 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?
Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
Grant thy gift of absolution,
Before the day of retribution.
Guilty now I pour my moaning,
All my shame and anguish owning.
Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
Through the sinful Mary shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope has given.
Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary because now we can call on that mercy. In the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. So the hymn calls on the Lord, who said, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).
Worthless are my tears and sighing.
Yet good Lord in grace complying,
Rescue me from fire undying.
With thy sheep a place provide me.
From the goats afar divide me,
To thy right hand do thou guide me.
When the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded.
Call me with thy saints surrounded.
Lo I kneel with heart-submission.
See like ashes my contrition.
Help me in my last condition.
Now comes the great summation: Judgment Day is surely coming. Grant me, O Lord, your grace to be ready:
Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
from the dust of earth returning.
Man for judgement must prepare him,
Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
Grant the dead eternal rest.