A woman lights a candle to take part in the Rorate Caeli Mass at at St. Irénée de Lyon Church in Montreal’s St. Henri neighbourhood Dec. 16. Peter Stockland

Rorate Caeli Mass celebrates the Virgin for Advent

  • December 20, 2023

These are dark days, and we are battle weary. There are a multitude of wars raging, geo-political, cultural, ecclesiastical, domestic and physical, and the northern winter has us scuttling like burrowing animals, seeking out light and warmth.

Of course, ’twas ever thus. Advent reminds us that the eighth-century B.C. prophet Isaiah spoke of a “people who walked in darkness.”

Our pastor likes to remind us that, in answer to our spiritual needs and pleading questions, “in her wisdom, Mother Church has provided us with the liturgical year.”

One of the most beautiful liturgical traditions which Mother Church has gifted us is the Rorate Caeli Mass, a votive Mass of the Virgin Mary celebrated in Advent.

The Mass takes its name from the opening words of the Latin text that begins the liturgy, “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.”

The Rorate Mass must begin before dawn. Driving on a largely empty highway at 6 a.m. in the December cold to enter a dark, silent church, travelling to the Mass has something of the feel of the outset of a pilgrimage.

There is little that is unique to the Mass apart from the simple yet powerful use of contrast between the deep blackness that immediately precedes the winter dawn and the emerging daylight to illustrate the entrance of Christ to our world.

At the beginning of Mass, the candles, both on the altar and held by the faithful, provide the only light.

The Rorate Mass is a Mass for Our Lady, and her presence is tangible.

The surrounding darkness is representative of our collective loss and confusion but, aided by the beauty and warmth of the candlelight, the darkened church is also like the womb, in which is incarnated the Light of the World. Still, silent and yet productive.

St. John Henry Newman, in his Meditations and Devotions, explains the title of Mary, Stella Matutina, or the Morning Star, another name for the planet Venus, the third brightest object in the heavens after the sun and the moon. In what could be a reflection on the Rorate Mass, Newman says the Morning Star arrives “after the Dark Night, but always Heralding the Sun.”

“It is Mary’s prerogative to be the Morning Star … She does not shine for herself, or from herself, but she is the reflection of her and our Redeemer, and she glorifies Him. When she appears in the darkness, we know that He is close at hand.”

The Rorate Mass is most readily associated with those communities that celebrate what is called the Traditional Latin, or Extraordinary Form, Mass, but it is not unique to it. A quick internet search shows that on the second Sunday of Advent, St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Toronto celebrated a Rorate Mass.

Charles Weaver, Juilliard lecturer and director of music at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, CT, explains, “There is no reason that the Rorate Mass couldn’t be celebrated in the Novus Ordo. It’s just a Votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary sung during Advent. None of the other features, such as candlelight or starting the Mass before dawn, are really dictated by the missal itself.”

The most dramatic moment of the Rorate Mass, as unobtrusive and delicate as the workings of grace, is when the light from the rising sun gradually illuminates the interior of the church and the candles become superfluous. This moment often seems to coincide with that of the Consecration.

At the conclusion of the Mass, the priest three times intones the antiphon, “Behold, the Lord will come, and with Him all His saints; and on that day there shall be a great light, alleluia.”

The celebration of the Rorate Mass is well-placed at the beginning of the liturgical year, for it is a preparation for not only the great feast of Christmas but for the entire paschal mystery as it is played out through the year.

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