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  • Fr. Scott Haynes

Rorate Caeli

Fr. Scott Haynes


- A Meditation for the Fourth Sunday of Advent -



In the four weeks before the birth of the Christ Child, we celebrate the season of Advent. It is a spiritual journey in which we follow Our Lady and Joseph to Bethlehem. We reflect on her the nine months during which her womb became the living Tabernacle of God, the “the womb of God enfleshed.”[1] As the Ven. Fulton Sheen explained: “God had told Moses, ‘Make a tabernacle that I may dwell with my people.’ Tabernacles were of stone and gold until an angel came to the Blessed Mother and asked her if she would become the mother of our Lord. She said, ‘I am a virgin. I do not know man.’ And God said: ‘In the older tabernacles there was the Shekinah, the cloud of my presence, that overshadowed the Temple. Now my Holy Spirit will overshadow you, and he that will be born of you will be called the Son of the Most High God.”[2]


From her Annunciation (March 25) to Christ’s Nativity (December 25), Mary is teaching us how to enter into the spirit of Advent. She shows us how to live the hidden life, tabernacled with Christ. It is a life wrapped in silence and intimacy. It was for Mary a life of prayer in which she was utterly enveloped in the mystery of the Incarnation of her Lord and Savior. The Advent of Christ was for Mary a time of joyful expectation. In our observance of Advent, we join Our Lady as we look for the coming of Emmanuel (“God with us”).




Today, we reach the Fourth Sunday of Advent and our observance of Advent is nearly over, as the joyous day of Christ’s Nativity is upon us. In our reflection, we must come to understand that “(Mary) didn’t celebrate Advent; she lived it in her flesh. Like every mother bearing a child, she knows what it means to be waiting for somebody and she can help us in approaching Christmas with an expectant faith.”[3]



On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the choir (schola cantorum) chant these words from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum (“Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness”).[4] This text from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, used for the Introit[5] on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, is also the basis for a beautiful Rorate hymn[6] that has been popularized over the centuries.



Use of the Rorate text as an Introit finds application in the Sacred Liturgy on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Holy Mother Church also uses this Introit in the Marian votive Mass for Advent.[7] The ancient custom of holding a Rorate Mass in honor of the Virgin Mary recalls that it was upon her that the Holy Spirit rained down righteousness. Among the most popular devotions to Our Lady during Advent in the Middle Ages,[8] the Marian Rorate Mass is customarily offered in early morning on the day we traditionally dedicate to her, Saturday,[9] though the day(s) upon which it has been said has varied over time.[10]



The pure white wax of the candles, which illumine the darkened Church during the Rorate Mass, symbolize the pure Body of Christ that was formed in the womb of the Immaculate Virgin. As the prayers of the Rorate Mass proceed, the sun begins to dawn, as the Church gradually becomes filled with sunlight, recalling how our faith is illumined by Jesus Christ, the Sun of Righteousness. There is also the custom in “Austria, Switzerland, and Germany,” that “families walked in the dark of the early morning, (carrying lamps, candles, or later, flashlights) to church, where Mass was celebrated, and favorites Advents hymns were sung.”[11]



There are many customs associate with the Rorate Mass. One memorable custom includes the three-fold chanting of the antiphon Ecce, Dominus veniet at the conclusion of the Rorate Mass. After the Last Gospel, in which we show reverence to Christ’s Incarnation, the Priest stands at the center of the Altar and intones the antiphon (Ecce, Dominus veniet) three times after which the antiphon is continued by those present. Each intonation is begun at higher pitch than the previous one. This mirrors the practice of the three-fold Ecce Lignum Crucis on Good Friday and the three-fold Alleluia at the Easter Vigil. The text of the antiphon reads:

Ecce Dominus veniet, et omnes sancti ejus cum eo: et erit in die illa lux magna, alleluia (“Behold, the Lord will come, and with Him all His saints; and on that day there shall be a great light, alleluia”)[12]

The reference to the great light is fitting for a Mass that was just conducted in candlelight and during which the sun has risen.



In the Middle Ages, the Rorate Mass was so revered and beloved that it received nicknames from the people. The Rorate Mass was widely known as the Missa aurea (“Golden Mass”), recalling the various promises attached to it. Additionally, it was also known as the Missa Angelica (“Angelic Mass”), because of the Gospel at the Mass from St. Luke, which recounts the Annunciation, opening with the words Missus est Angelus Gábriel (“The Angel Gabriel was sent”).


In the Middle Ages, the capital letters of the text of the Annunciation Gospel were written in gold leaf in the Altar Missal. This was indicative of the mystical grace hidden within the exchange of words between the Archangel Gabriel and Mary. In some monastic communities, the chanting of the Holy Gospel is sung according to a specific ancient melody only otherwise heard with the singing of the Gospel on Pentecost.


Like a Proto-Pentecost, the Annunciation narrative tells us how Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirt—a symbol of Holy Mother Church being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. King Sigmund the First of Poland loved the Rorate Mass so much that in the year 1540, he built a special Lady Chapel within the Cathedral of Krakow, in which the Rorate Mass would be daily offered, regardless of the season.[13]



Besides the use of the Rorate caeli as an Introit, in the seventeenth century, Isaiah’s Rorate text was arranged into a hymn combining the traditional text with other scriptural passages used in the Advent liturgies.[14] The Rorate hymn is an exquisite poetical expression that expressed the longings of the patriarchs and prophets of old. As we chant the Rorate hymn, the Church symbolically is longing and sighing for the coming of the Messiah. The verses of the hymn recall the captivity of God’s chosen people in Babylon,[15] as they seek their savior.



The verses of the Rorate hymn are a cry of desperation, coming from the depths of the human heart. The Jews had staggered hundreds of miles to Babylon and now had to live apart from the Promised Land, and the Temple. Weeping and lamenting, they cried out:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors requested a song; our tormentors demanded songs of joy, ‘Sing us a song of Zion.’ How can we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right-hand wither.[16]



Forced into exile, the Jewish people lost all their property and possessions. It was a dreadful scenario. People were permanently separated, and many died along the way. As they were being driven into exile, their last memory of the Holy City Jerusalem was the smoldering ruin of the Temple.[17] The Advent Rorate hymn powerfully illustrates the desperate need that ancient Judah had for the coming of the Messiah to rend the heavens and come down. The plaintive verses, primarily drawn from Isaiah’s lament, draw us into the desperate situation of God’s people, who have lost everything due to their sin and now seek salvation through hearty repentance.


As the first three verses of the Rorate hymn describe, we too are oppressed by the weight of our sins when we wander from God. Our passions blow us about like leaves in the wind and we lose our way, as the third verse states:

Behold, O Lord, the affliction of your people, and send forth him whom you will send; send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth, from Rock of the desert to the mount of the daughter of Sion: that he may take away the yoke of our captivity.


The verses of the Rorate hymn branch out into the broader acknowledgement of man’s sin, the need for God’s mercy, and finally the looking forward, as did John the Baptist, in his recognition of Jesus, for the coming of our Messiah. The tender mercies of the Lord may be hidden from our eyes for a time. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that we have closed our eyes, or that we are focusing on the wrong thing. When we are staring troubles in the face, we become forgetful of God’s providence over us. Yet, in the fulness of time, God’s mercy is revealed, as the final verse of the Rorate hymn shows:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people; For your salvation will suddenly come: why are you consumed with sadness? why hath sorrow seized you? I will save you: do not be afraid. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Redeemer.


In the Rorate Caeli, the liturgical “threads” of Advent are neatly drawn together. As righteousness rains down upon the Virgin, her womb brings forth the fruit of salvation—Jesus Christ our Savior. The image of the dew falling calls to mind two images: the sign of Gideon’s fleece,[18] a symbol of Mary’s virginity, and the falling manna in the desert,[19] a prefiguration of the Holy Eucharist. These motifs figure in the Advent Rorate hymn.


In the Old Testament, God fed his chosen people with manna from heaven. Exodus records that God sent manna every night. Every morning after the dew had disappeared and that it had to be collected before the heat of the sun melted it. In the New Testament, St. John the Beloved forges a connection between the manna and Christ, our God Incarnate, who is the “Bread of Life”:

They said therefore to him: What sign therefore dost thou shew, that we may see, and may believe thee? What dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you; Moses gave you not bread from heaven, but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world. They said therefore unto him: Lord, give us always this bread. And Jesus said to them: I am the Bread of Life: he that cometh to Me shall not hunger: and he that believeth in Me shall never thirst.[20]



Mary’s encounter with the Holy Spirit brought forth fruit—the Body of Christ. From her virginal womb we miraculously received the “Living Bread come down from Heaven.” This Eucharistic aspect of Mary’s Annunciation is clear. In a fitting way, God brings about good fruits in His children when we cooperate with His grace.


The Marian dimension of the Rorate caeli is strengthened as we realize the hymn’s use of the Old Testament imagery of Gideon’s fleece. Rupert of Deutz[21] writes:

“The Holy Spirit descended into the Blessed Virgin, He that the Holy Scriptures admit to be represented by dew.”[22]

Rev. Paolo Segneri[23] unfolds this for us. As the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and covers her in the dew of Divine Love, she receives the Savior of the world, but “all will not equally experience the good effects of this dew.”[24] “It is just as it was with that which fell on Gideon’s fleece: the first night the fleece was wet and not the floor round it; and the second night the floor was wet and not the fleece.”[25] Segneri explains:

The first to benefit by Christ’s coming were the Jews, the rest of the world remaining “dry,” and afterwards the rest of the world received the benefit and the Jews remained “dry.” To you it behooved us first to speak the word of God, but because you reject it ... we turn to the Gentiles” [Acts 13:46]. Do thou return lively thanks to God that thou art in a place where this dew has descended most abundantly? but if as yet thou hast gathered no fruit in consequence, what does this show? It shows that thy heart is not of earth, but of stone.[26]



The Book of Judges tells the story of how Gideon, needing reassurance that God is actually asking him to undertake the defense of Israel, challenges God to give him a sign:

Gideon said to God, “If indeed you are going to save Israel through me, as you have said, I am putting this woolen fleece on the threshing floor, and if dew is on the fleece alone, while all the ground is dry, I shall know that you will save Israel through me, as you have said.” That is what happened. Early the next morning when he wrung out the fleece, he squeezed enough dew from it to fill a bowl. Gideon then said to God, “Do not be angry with me if I speak once more. Let me make just one more test with the fleece. Let the fleece alone be dry, but let there be dew on all the ground.” That is what God did that night: the fleece alone was dry, but there was dew on all the ground.[27]



The medieval imagination saw this event (what we might call a double-blind challenge to God) both as a prototype for the miraculous impregnation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit (the fleece impregnated with dew) and as a reference to her perpetual virginity (the fleece kept dry). It is also in keeping with other images, drawn from the Old Testament, that the liturgy of the Church uses when referring to the Incarnation, such as the well-known verse from Isaiah, the Rorate Caeli.


Mary is like Gideon’s fleece waiting to receive the dew which is to be the sign of victory over the enemies of God’s people. The dew of the Holy Spirit miraculously fell upon on the living fleece of Mary. In the Akathist Hymn we sing:

“From you has dripped the refreshing dew that quenched the flame of idolatry. We therefore cry aloud to you: Rejoice, O Virgin, fleece cover with dew which Gideon foresaw.”


The Church Fathers associate the miracle of the fleece with the Incarnation of the Word of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. St. Proclus of Constantinople describe the Blessed Virgin as the “loom” of the incarnation and linked the miracle of the fleece with Mary:

“The Holy Mary has called us together, that undefiled treasure of virginity… the most-pure fleece with heavenly dew, from which the Shepherd clothed the sheep… she is the awe-inspiring loom of the incarnation.”


Throughout Advent, let us keep watch with the Virgin as she quietly prepares herself to give the world its Saviour. Like fertile soil she receives the heavenly dew to bring forth the Just One. By her complete openness to God’s will, desolate Jerusalem will once more shine forth with brightness. All mankind, slumbering in sin, will be awoken by the Sinless One. Through the tender intercession of the Daughter of Zion, our yoke of captivity will be lifted from our shoulders and we will be comforted by the advent of the Messiah. In the brightness of Our Lady who stands atop the sun, sadness melts away as the promise is fulfilled. May we who await his Second Coming as judge do so with the grace which comes from the holy sacraments and from devotion to Our Lady the Daughter of Zion.



RORATE CAELI HYMN


Antiphon

Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One.


Verse 1

Antiphon


Be not angry, O Lord, and remember no longer our iniquity: behold the city of the Holy One is become a desert: Sion is become a desert: Jerusalem is desolate: the house of thy sanctification and of thy glory, where our fathers praised thee. Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One.


Verse 2

Antiphon


We have sinned and are become as one that is unclean: and we have all fallen as a leaf, and our iniquities like the wind have carried us away: thou hast hidden thy face from us, and hast crushed us in the hold of our iniquity.

Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One.


Verse 3

Antiphon


Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people, and send forth Him who is to come: send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth, from the Rock of the desert, to the mount of daughter Sion: that he may take away the yoke of our captivity. Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One.


Verse 4

Antiphon


Be comforted, be comforted, my people: thy salvation cometh quickly: why art thou consumed with grief: for sorrow hath estranged thee: I will save thee: fear not, for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer. Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One.



Notes: [1] This phrase is from the Akathist Hymn, a profound, devotional poem, which sings the praises of the Holy Mother and ever Virgin Mary. It is one of the most beloved services in Orthodoxy. It was composed in the imperial city of Constantinople, “the city of the Virgin,” by St. Romanos the Melodist, who reposed in the year 556. [2] From a homily, “Mary, Tabernacle of the Lord,” given by the Ven. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen during a Mass at the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976. [3] Cardinal Raniero Cantalemessa, Preacher of the Papal Household. [4] Isaiah 45:8. [5] The Introit is the entrance antiphon sung by the schola as the priest, the sacred ministers, and the altar servers process to the Altar for Mass. [6] The Rorate hymn is also known as the “Advent Prose.” [7] It additionally occurs as the Introit for the Mass on Wednesday in Ember Week after the Feast of St. Lucy (December 13) and on the feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 18). [8] Polycarpus Radó, Enchiridion Liturgicum: Complectens Theologiae Sacramentalis Et Dogmata Et Leges (Rome: Herder, 1961), 1109-1110. [9] The ancient custom of venerating the Virgin Mother of God on Saturday takes us back to Christ’s crucifixion. On Good Friday, Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb. On Saturday, our Lord’s disciples were mourning the death of Jesus, filled with confusion and fear. But Our Lady, who had total faith in her beloved Son, knew and believed that He would rise from the dead on the third day. Each Saturday, we honor Mary for her great faith. We turn to her, who is the first and the best Christian, to teach us how to follow Christ more perfectly. [10] In the 8th century, the Rorate Mass was said on the seven days preceding Christmas. See, Ordo Romanus XV. Another tradition is to celebrate this Mass on the nine consecutive days prior to Christmas: Celebratio novendialis Missarum aurearum (“A Novena of Golden Masses”). This practice was permitted by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, especially to dioceses in Italy (1658, 1713, and 1718). It is a common Catholic practice to prepare for major events by a novena. This novena has the added symbolism of each day representing one of the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. The Boldvensi Sacramentary (written in Hungary between 1192 and 1195) has a proper Preface text for the Rorate Mass: qui per BVM partum ecclesiae tuae tribuisti celebrare mirabile mysterium (“Thou, who through the Offspring of the Blessed Virgin Mary, granted to Thy Church to celebrate the wonderful mystery”). Between 1774 and 1960, various permissions were granted regarding this practice by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. [11] Ann Ball, Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), s.v. “Rorate Mass.” [12] Text and translation of the Antiphon Abbot Guéranger. See, Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 1 (Advent), trans. Laurence Shepherd, (Loreto Publications, 2000), 55. [13] A similar custom prevails to this day at the Holy House of Loreto, in which all Masses, public and private are the votive Mass of the Annunciation. [14] In addition to traditional plainsong, musical settings of the Rorate coeli have been composed by amongst others, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1572), Jacob Handl (1586), William Byrd (1605) and Heinrich Schütz (1639). [15] These plaintive verses from Isaiah were written in a terrible period of Israel’s history. Isaiah lived between two tumultuous events: the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyrians in 721 B.C. and the destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Though Isaiah died long before the fateful events of 587 B.C., the third part of his book prophesies it. [16] Ps. 137:1-5. [17] See, Isaiah 63-64. Also, the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet describe the Temple’s destruction, a devastating moment for the Jewish people. [18] Judges 6:37-40. [19] Exodus 16:14-15. [20] John 6:31-35. [21] Rupert of Deutz (Latin: Rupertus Tuitiensis; c. 1075/1080 – c. 1129) was an influential Benedictine theologian, exegete and writer on liturgical and musical topics. in 1120 Frederick I, Archbishop of Cologne,[3] appointed him abbot of the monastery of St Heribert in Deutz, founded in 1003 but later named for Saint Heribert, Archbishop of Cologne, who had died in 1021 and been buried in the abbey church. Deutz is now a suburb of Cologne. [22] Rupertus Tuitiensis, “Commentarium in Matthaeum Liber I,” Patrologia Latina, CLXVIII: 1328-1329. [23] Rev. Paolo Segneri (1624–1694) was an Italian Jesuit preacher, missionary, and ascetical writer. [24] Rev. Paolo Segneri, S.J., La manna dell’anima (1683). [25] Ibid. [26] Ibid. [27] Judges 6:36-40

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