Rorate Caeli

-by Br Damian Day, OP

“Advent is the season of longing. The purple vestments, the substance of the readings, and the tenor of the liturgies all express our yearning for the coming of our King who will remove the desolation of sin and invigorate our souls with his life. The entrance chant for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Rorate Caeli, encapsulates the great desire of this season with the haunting beauty of its pleading.

The chant is basically a meditation on Isaiah 45:8,

Rain down, you heavens, from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness;
Let the earth open, let them bring forth salvation,
And let righteousness spring up together.
I, the Lord, have created it.

a text that appears in various Advent liturgies, including today’s morning prayer. These words form the moving refrain:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Heavens, drop dew from above,
and let the clouds rain forth justice.

The Church raises a plea to heaven that God might come down and refresh the desert dryness of our lives. We pine for the Lord “like a dry, weary land without water” (Ps 63:1). The structure of the chant itself reflects this movement.

With the first word of the Church’s pleading, the imperative Roráte, the notes move upward reaching the highest pitch on heavens (caéli). From heaven’s heights, the chant descends downward with the hoped for dewfall (désuper), rising slightly to the clouds (núbes) from which the notes rain forth with justice (plúant jústum).

Rorate Caeli is a prayer for the Incarnation. We pray for the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the clouds and the water of the dewfall, to descend upon the dry earth of our humanity in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. From her, watered by the rain of heavenly grace, the earth bursts forth in fruitfulness: “Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up!” (Isa 45:8).

Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, is the justice (jústum) that we pray will both rain down from heaven and spring up from the earth. He is the answer to the plight that characterizes the verses of the Rorate. In the first two stanzas, the voice of the Church sings of the desolation of humanity. Then, from the depths, the prayer rises up:

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ

Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people,
and send forth him whom thou wilt send;
send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth

The Lamb, “the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear” (Isa 53:11). He is the only answer to the desert of desolation that sin causes in our souls. He washes away the grime of sin and waters the desiccated soil of our hearts when he pours himself out upon our thirsty earth.

In the last stanza of the chant, we hear God’s tender and sure response to these pleas:

Consolámini, consolámini, pópule méus:
cito véniet sálus túa:
quare mæróre consúmeris,
quia innovávit te dólor?
Salvábo te, nóli timére,
égo enim sum Dóminus Déus túus,
Sánctus Israël, Redémptor túus.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
your salvation shall suddenly come:
why wilt thou waste away in sadness?
why hath sorrow seized thee?
Fear not, for I will save thee:
For I am the Lord thy God,
the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.

May we join the pleading of our hearts to the cry of the Church, straining forward to the day when the Just One will pour himself forth and quench our every thirst.”