Yesterday afternoon I was with my cousin at the Meyerhoff Auditorium in Baltimore, to hear the Baltimore Symphony present Verdi's Requiem.
Wow, what an awesome experience! I shall never forget it.
You can easily look up the backstory on Verdi's Requiem--he composed it for a fellow composer who died; and although it is based on the texts of the Requiem Mass, it's far from clear this music was ever used for a Mass. Easy to see why: it calls for both an orchestra and a significant chorus.
Nevertheless, it uses the actual texts of the older form of the Mass for the dead. The show-stopper is his "Dies Irae" which is the sequence that came before the Gospel. If you go to Youtube, you can easily find this and hear it for yourself. Now imagine listening to this live. I also imagined it being performed at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, where the dominant mosaic is of our Lord in judgment.
Verdi's work portrays something so important about the spiritual realm and the Mass: that we are always engaged in spiritual combat, for souls, and while the Lord's victory is not in doubt, his victory is a fruit of real combat. The destiny of each soul cannot be taken for granted.
If salvation were so easy as we might suppose, none of our Faith makes any sense. Why should God have become incarnate? Why suffer and die? Why would he have said, so frequently and insistently, that it had to be this way? And then, why the sacraments? Why the Mass? Why any of it, if salvation is easy?
Of course, in one sense, it could be: God could snap his fingers and save everyone. Why doesn't he?
Because salvation is more than fashioning a new creation of automatons. God wishes our cooperation. So much is unknown to us, about the new creation--but what lies ahead must demand quite a lot of us, thus God so patiently--and often inexplicably--seeks both our cooperation, and our efforts to bring more of humanity along.
Verdi's Requiem explored and illustrated the fierce contest over souls. The Dies Irae, in particular, makes clear that God is just and there is such a thing as judgment--experienced as wrath for all that opposes him. That sounds harsh; but things that are ugly and corrupt deserve wrath. Injustice--soul-killing, life-deforming injustice--does not merit wrath?
But that's only part of the story; God's wrath is that which is left when all else God offers has been closed out. Yet it must be part of the story, or else the whole thing, again, makes no sense. Without damnation being possible, there is no drama.
As I sat listening yesterday--mostly with my eyes closed--I thought of how well Verdi illustrated the deeper reality of the Mass: that there is a cosmic drama, into which we are drawn by the Mass. We enter into the Lord's combat for souls. We offer his Body and Blood for the salvation of souls. We plead for mercy with the shed blood of the Lamb.
Again, we could say, "oh but the outcome is certain; we are simply recalling what he already did." Consoling, is it not? Yet are we entitled to suppose this? Christ leads us into combat--what sort of soldiers are we to say, "take it easy folks, our champion is going to win the day no matter what we do"? Do we think the Lord is play-acting and we're supposed to pretend it's all serious? Maybe he really means it?
Everyone sat in rapt silence (well, almost everyone; a handful actually got up and left, which I find amazing. At one point, someone behind me got up, and made a bit of noise; the conductor seemed aware of it, and she gestured as if to say, to the singers, wait...and to the noisemaker, "please stop!") until the final notes died away. For my part, I didn't want to clap, and break the spell; it seemed everyone took a deep breath before putting their hands together. Everyone leapt to his feet and the four soloists and the conductor made three curtain calls. My cousin said he's never seen anything like it.