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A Meditation on an Often-Forgotten Advent Hymn

December 19, 2018 2 Comments

One of the less-well-known Advent hymns is “Rorate Caeli Desuper” (Heavens, drop dew from above). It is a plaintive hymn that recalls our desperate need for a savior and concludes with consolations from God, who has heard our cries and hastens to save us.

The refrain, which comes from Isaiah 45:8, is shown below in both Latin and English:

Roráte caéli désuper, (Heavens, drop dew from above)
et núbes plúant jústum. (and let the clouds rain forth justice).

This is an image for the gentle work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works subtly like the dewfall and more boldly like rainfall to bring forth Him who is our justice. For indeed, dew and rain are symbols of life, vigor, and/or providence. Water is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Archangel St. Gabriel told Mary, The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the most High shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Like a gentle dewfall, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and quietly she conceives; He who is our justice begins to dwell among us.

The rains that come forth from the clouds also are an image of God’s work in the Incarnation. Isaiah 45:8 continues by saying, Let the earth open up that salvation may sprout and righteousness spring up with it; I, the LORD, have created it. As God’s grace comes forth like rain from the clouds, truth shall spring up from the earth (see Psalm 85:11). Indeed, we are of the dust of this earth, and as the Lord tabernacles Himself in flesh in the womb of the Blessed Mother, justice and truth spring up from the earth as well. Both the quiet dewfall and the rain bring forth Him who is our justice and truth.

The need for this saving work of God is set forth in the verses that follow. (The Latin and English can be seen side by side here: Rorate Caeli Disuper.)

Be not angry, O Lord, and no longer remember our iniquity:
Behold, the holy city is made a wilderness,
Sion is deserted, Jerusalem a desolation:
the house of your holiness and your glory,
where our fathers praised thee
.

The next verse says that our sins have caused this:

We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we fall as do all the leaves:
and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us: and hast consumed us,
because of our iniquities
.

We are fallen like the leaves and the winds carry us away. We cannot see the Lord because we are blinded, consumed, and withered by our sins.

In the next verse, we cry to God to send a savior and shepherd to rescue us:

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,
from Petra of the desert to the mount of daughter Sion:
that he may take away the yoke of our captivity
.

God responds to our cries:

You are my witnesses, saith the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen;
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord,
and beside me there is no Savior:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand
.

Not only do I save you, says the Lord, but you shall then be my witnesses to draw others to me; I alone can save.

Then comes the great consolation and promise:

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.

Such a beautiful hymn, with its image of the dewfall and the rain symbolizing the Holy Spirit; with its image of Jesus our Savior as justice and truth springing forth from Mary’s womb and, by extension, from the earth! Such beautiful verses, setting fort our pitiful condition, giving voice to our cries, and ushering in the consolations and promises of our God!

Here is a simple, hauntingly beautiful version of the hymn in Gregorian Chant. (Note that the hymn tune is different from that of the antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.)

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Comments (2)

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  1. Ted K. says:

    The “hymn tune” is also symbolic of the Christ coming to earth, starting on the highest notes allowed by the mode on caeli, heaven, and gradually coming down, like the dew falling to earth, ending on the lowest note on justum, the just One, the Christ arriving on earth at the incarnation. The pericope from Isaias used as an Introit is originally from the feast of the incarnation, otherwise known as the Annunciation.

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