Terra tremuit et quievit dum resurgeret in judicio Deus.
(Composer: Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina)
Today is the sixth day in the octave of Easter – so Happy Easter!
The Terra Tremuit – a most peculiar Offertory for the most joyful day of Easter. The earth trembled, and was still when God arose to judgement. At first glance, very unlike the Gradual of the day – Haec dies quam fecit Dominus: exultemus et laetemur in ea. This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein. Earthquakes are considered by tradition to be one of the great punishments for sin, especially the sin of a whole nation; even in the Litinae Sanctorum, we pray – A flagello terraemotus, libera nos, Domine. From the scourge of the earthquake, free us, O Lord. Why this antiphon, from Psalm 75, on this day?
The first, most obvious answer, is found in Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre. And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. The very first Easter morning was heralded by a great earthquake, one that broke open the tomb where the Lord lay buried.
Interestingly, this earthquake Matthew records is the second of the Triduum, not the first; the first is on Good Friday. At the very moment of our Lord’s death, the apostle records, And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent. This, most certainly, is an occasion for judgement; even a sin of a whole nation against God, a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance like the blood of Abel. But this is not Good Friday; today is Easter, the very day when we celebrate the victory of mercy over judgement, and life over death. The question remains; why? Why now? Let us turn at last to Psalm 75 itself, from which the offertory is taken:
Thou hast caused judgment to be heard from heaven: the earth trembled and was still,
When God arose in judgment, to save all the meek of the earth.
For the thought of man shall give praise to thee: and the remainders of the thought shall keep holiday to thee.
Vow ye, and pay to the Lord your God: all you that are round about him bring presents. To him that is terrible,
Even to him who taketh away the spirit of princes: to the terrible with the kings of the earth. Ps 75 vv 9-13
Here! Here is an answer to why we celebrate, why we give praise, and bring presents to Him; for today we keep holiday of the day He executed judgement, taking away the spirit of princes. We celebrate that judgement has been executed not against us, but for us – to save all the meek of the earth, may we be counted among them. Instead, today the judgement is exercised against the princes and the kings of the earth.
Who are these princes, to whom God is not merciful, but terrible? Read in the most literal sense, these are the princes of the Gentiles, the leaders of nations, the mighty men of the earth; and, while this is frequently true, this is not the full meaning. If we turn to Psalm 81, we find another, fuller meaning:
God hath stood in the congregation of gods: and being in the midst of them he judgeth gods.
How long will you judge unjustly: and accept the persons of the wicked?
Judge for the needy and fatherless: do justice to the humble and the poor.
Rescue the poor; and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner.
They have not known nor understood: they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth shall be moved.
I have said: You are gods and all of you the sons of the most High.
But you like men shall die: and shall fall like one of the princes.
Arise, O God, judge thou the earth: for thou shalt inherit among all the nations. Ps. 81
Psalm 81 is the key to understanding this offertory, and why we celebrate not only Surgens Jesus, Dominus noster, but also and particularly resurgeret in judicio Deus. The princes of the earth upon which judgement has been executed this day are the elohim, the gods of the nations. Today, the incomparable Son of God arises in judgement over the “sons of the Most High”. And the sentence is this: the gods of the nations, the demons, shall die like men, for the Son of Man stands victorious over death – and Hell.
This Easter, take consolation in the judgement of our Lord, for it is also the final refuge of His mercy; and take comfort in His promises.
But I tell you the truth: it is expedient to you that I go: for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he is come, he will convict the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgment. Of sin: because they believed not in me. And of justice: because I go to the Father; and you shall see me no longer. And of judgment: because the prince of this world is already judged. John 16:7-11