Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the last of the “Rorate Caeli” Masses on December 15, 2018, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
We are celebrating the last of our “Rorate Masses” for this Advent. For the benefit of some new-comers, let me rehearse the meaning behind these special Advent Masses. These are liturgies celebrated in union with Our Lady, who lived that first Advent of nine months as she nurtured “the blessed fruit of [her] womb, Jesus.” We gather in the pre-dawn hours and offer the Sacred Liturgy in a darkness only illumined by candlelight to experience, even haltingly, the darkness in which our Jewish forebears walked as they prayerfully awaited the coming of the Messiah. In different places and times, the Rorate Mass was offered every day of Advent, or on the seven days before Christmas, or as a preparatory novena for the great solemnity of our salvation.
The pre-dawn period, although eerie and still fraught with potential danger, also promises the rising of the sun; the pre-dawn fosters hope in us. Gathering in prayer on Saturday has been a traditional way of honoring the Woman who brings us to Sunday, to adore the “Sun of Justice” (Mal 4:2). Indeed, when unimpeded by a liturgical memorial or feast, Catholics always observe Saturday in union with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Rorate Mass is also a happy blending of popular piety and liturgical worship. In December of 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship published its “Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy,” which promoted a happy marriage between the two. In the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, not a few would-be liturgists denigrated expressions of popular devotion and impoverished the spiritual lives of all too many Catholics by reducing all our prayer to the Mass. To be sure, we must agree with the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in holding that the Sacred Liturgy is truly “the source and summit” of the Christian life (n. 10). A source, however, springs forth into many tributaries; one reaches a summit only in stages, stopping off at way-stations to gain one’s breath or to appreciate the view. Similarly, devotions – properly understood and observed – contribute to a full and wholesome liturgical life, as the “Directory” points out. The Rorate Mass inserts us ever more deeply into the Advent season, all the while uniting us to the pre-eminent Woman of Advent, the Mother of the Messiah.
This Mass gets its name from the introit or entrance antiphon: Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant Justum (Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One), a plea taken from the Prophet Isaiah (45:8), the Church’s “particular” voice for this holy season. This was the petition of the Chosen People for 4000 years, and we enter into that spirit of longing symbolically through the four weeks of Advent.
Notice that the prayer is for “dew” which, in nature, comes silently and is almost imperceptible. If dew is lacking, however, the results are quite perceptible. In Sacred Scripture, not infrequently, dew represents the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the Edward Caswall translation of the Pentecost Sequence, the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, we implore the Holy Spirit: “On our dryness, pour thy dew.” Dew can accomplish its purpose on grass; it has no effect on stone. And so, we ask for the grace of conversion, which will enable us to receive the Promised One.
The Spirit of God, we are told in the first book of the Bible, “hovered over the abyss” (Gen 1:2), bringing forth creation from chaos. The Spirit of God, St. Luke tells us, hovered over the Virgin of Nazareth, making her the Mother of the long-awaited Messiah and Lord (1:34). That very Spirit is invoked in every celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice: “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III). Or, in the Second Eucharistic Prayer, our theme is even more pronounced: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Without a doubt the Woman of the Holy Spirit, par excellence, is Mary. Not without reason has the Tradition referred to her as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. In nature, we know that the dawn receives the dew. In much the same way, we can say that Mary, Herald of the Dawn, and Spouse of the Spirit receives the dew of the Holy Spirit. She is also precisely what Pope Paul VI proclaimed her: “Mother of the Church.” The intimacy which Mary had for her nine-month-long Advent and still has with the Child of her womb is shared with us who, through Baptism, become brothers and sisters of her Son. Her role of anticipation is highlighted in that lovely medieval hymn, which has us sing:
Mary the Dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the Gate, Christ the Heav’nly Way!
Mary the Root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the Grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the Wheat-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the Rose-Tree, Christ the Rose Blood-red!
Mary the Font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the Chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the Temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the Beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the Mother, Christ the Mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.
The Virgin Mother, however, was not merely a kind of holy incubator, so that when that Child was born, she vanished from His life – or He from hers. No, a mother is a mother forever. Indeed, she is the Queen Mother, seated at her Divine Son’s right hand – just like Bathsheba placed at Solomon’s right hand (cf. 1 Kings 2:19). And that Queen Mother was given to each one of us by the dying Jesus as His final and most precious gift to His brothers and sisters in the Church (cf. Jn 19:26-27).
With Our Lady, we await the dawn of our redemption, that saving act which is sacramentally renewed in every offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, prophesied by Malachi: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (1:11). And so, as we direct our minds and hearts to the Oriens ex alto (The Rising Sun), soon to be present on this altar, we ask Mary the Dawn to come to our side, making our own the penetrating prayer of Cardinal Newman:
O Holy Mother, stand by me now at Mass time, when Christ comes to me,
as thou didst minister to Thy infant Lord –
as Thou didst hang upon His words when He grew up,
as Thou wast found under His cross.
Stand by me, Holy Mother,
that I may gain somewhat of thy purity, thy innocence, thy faith,
and He may be the one object of my love and my adoration,
as He was of thine.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!