King of majesty tremendous, Who does free salvation send us, Fount of pity, then befriend us!
~Dies Irae (Sequence and Hymn)
While it is no longer an essential component of Funeral Masses, the medieval sequence the Dies Irae still remains the most recognizable and most influential sequence of the Church’s liturgical patrimony. The sequence is a type of hymn that originated from adding words to the melismas (many notes on the same syllable) that frequently ended the Alleluia before the Gospel. During the Middle Ages, the sequence was quite popular and many hundreds were composed for the different feasts on the liturgical calendar. Following the Council of Trent, the number of sequences was reduced in an effort to eliminate “recent” additions to the liturgy. This left the Roman Rite with the following sequences: Victimae Paschali Laudes (Easter), Veni, Sancte Spiritu (Pentecost), Lauda Sion (Corpus Christi), and Dies Irae (Masses for the Dead). In the 18th century the Stabat Mater was brought back for the Seven Sorrows of Mary (Our Lady of Sorrows) and following the Vatican II Council, the Dies Irae was removed from the funeral liturgy.
This removal from the funeral liturgy did not mean, however, that it was removed entirely from the Church’s liturgy. It is now an option as a hymn for the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer for the 34th Week of Ordinary Time, that is, this week following the Solemnity of the Christ the King of the Universe. The reason for its removal is related to where it ended up being moved. The text of the Dies Irae is a meditation on the Second Coming of Christ, the General Resurrection, The Last Judgment, and the eternal reward or punishment of all peoples. Because of the emphasis which the hymn lays on judgment and the possibility of eternal loss, it was deemed as perhaps too distracting or discouraging for funerals, where hope in Christ’s conquest of Death and the pledge of Eternal Life are the central focus. Nonetheless, these “Last Things” are an especially appropriate object of consideration here at the end of the liturgical year, as well as the beginning of Advent 2021. I would encourage anyone to take the time and read through at least once this liturgical poem, as well as listen to the various ways certain composers have set the text to music. Perhaps the most famous Requiem setting of the Dies Irae, is of course, the one by Mozart. For a celebration like today’s, the movement Rex tremendae is particularly on point. The chorus repeats the word rex (king) before moving along a score that seeks to musically paint a scene that is both awe-some as it is comforting: the king of tremendous majesty coming to save his people. He is coming, Christ the King. Long live the King!
Fr. Richard Hinkley