Advent Hymn: Rorate Caeli Desuper

On Wednesday of this third week of Advent we read from the scriptures that supply the roots of one of the least well-known, yet most theologically important, Advent hymns is “Rorate Caeli Desuper.” Some congregations know it under its English title: “Drop Down Ye Heavens from Above.” One of the reasons for its lack of popularity is that it is chant-like rather than metrical and thus harder for a congregation to sing. It is in the form of an antiphon and verses. The text of the antiphon is from Isaiah 45:8, and the verses are drawn largely from Isaiah 63-64. The hymn as a whole gives exquisite poetical expression to the longings of patriarchs and prophets, and symbolically of the Church, for the coming of the Messiah. The verses point to the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people. The antiphon plaintively seeks a savior:

Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum

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

An extended version of the antiphon is found in the Divine Office:

Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum
Aperiatur terra et germinent Salvatorem

Drop down dew, you heavens from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One
Let the earth be opened and bring forth the Savior.

In this version, there is an echo of Isaiah 55:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it(Isaiah 55:10-1).

In this post we will focus on the hymn version.As a hymn, it is usually paired with a series of Scripture verses, drawn from a desperate period in Jewish history, which summoned a powerful cry for a savior:

Latin English
Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down the Just One.
Ne irascáris Dómine,
ne ultra memíneris iniquitátis:
ecce cívitas Sáncti fácta est desérta:
Síon desérta fácta est, Jerúsalem desoláta est:
dómus sanctificatiónis túæ et glóriæ túæ,
ubi laudavérunt te pátres nóstri. (Is 64:9-10)
Be not angry O Lord,
and longer remember our iniquity:
Behold your holy city is made a wilderness,
Sion is a deserted, Jerusalem is desolate:
The house of your holiness and glory,
where our fathers praised you.
Peccávimus,

et fácti súmus tamquam immúndus nos,
et cecídimus quasi fólium univérsi:
et iniquitátes nóstræ quasi véntus

abstulérunt nos:
abscondísti faciem túam a nóbis,
et allisísti nos in mánu iniquitátis nóstræ. (Is 64:6-7)

We have sinned,

and are as an unclean thing,
and we all fall as a leaf:
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.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon: (Is 16:1)
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.
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 Petra of the desert to the mount of the daughter of Sion: that he may take away the yoke of our captivity.
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;
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.

The plaintive verses come from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which was 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 (though some scholars argue that the third section was appended by a later author). Let’s review this calamitous event.

The conquest of Judah and the siege of Jerusalemwas a military campaign carried out by Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon in 587 B.C. He had defeated Egyptian forces in 595 B.C. and subsequently invaded Judah. King Jehoiakim of Judah resisted Babylonian rule, but to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem he shifted allegiance from Egypt to Babylon and paid tribute from the treasury in Jerusalem. In 591 B.C., during the fourth year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar suffered military losses against the Egyptians and this perceived weakness led to numerous rebellions among the states of the Levant, which owed allegiance to Babylon, including Judah. King Jehoiakim stopped paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar and adopted a pro-Egyptian position.

Nebuchadnezzar dealt severely with this rebellion,laying siege to Jerusalem. King Jehoiakim died during the siege, possibly on December 10 588 B.C., and the city eventually fell on 2 Adar (March 16) 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar pillaged the city and the Temple. Much of the surviving Jewish population of Judah, numbering about 10,000, was deported to Babylon. None remained except the very poorest (who eventually became the Samaritans). Also taken to Babylon were the treasures and furnishings of the Temple, including golden vessels dedicated by King Solomon. Jerusalem lay a burning ruin.

According to the Book of Second Kings,

Surely this happened to Judah at the LORD’s command, to remove them from His presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all that he had done, and also for the innocent blood he had shed. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD was unwilling to forgive(2 Kings 24:3-4).

Jeremiah had warned,

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah until this very day—twenty-three years—the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened. And the LORD has sent all His servants the prophets to you again and again but you have not listened or inclined your ear to hear. The prophets told you, ‘Turn now, each of you, from your evil ways and evil deeds, and you can dwell in the land that the LORD has given to you and your fathers forever and ever. Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the works of your hands. Then I will do you no harm. But to your own harm, you have not listened to Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so you have provoked Me to anger with the works of your hands.’ Therefore this is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will summon all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send for My servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, whom I will bring against this land, against its residents.’

These verses of this hymn are no less than a cry of desperation. The Jews had staggered hundreds of miles to Babylon and now had to live apart from the land, the Temple, and the culture God had given them. Weeping and lamenting, they said, 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 cease to function(Ps 137:1-5).

It was dreadful. Most people had lost a substantial number of family members as well as everything they owned; as they were driven into exile, the last thing they saw was the destroyed city and the smoldering ruin of the Temple. Isaiah 63and 64, along with the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, capture well this devastating moment for the Jewish people.

Hence, perhaps as no other Advent Hymn, Rorate Caeli Desuper powerfully illustrates the desperate need that ancient Judah had for a savior to rend the heavens and come down. The plaintive verses, drawn mainly from Isaiah’s prophetic lament, draw us into the desperate situation of God’s people, who have lost everything due to their sin and now seek salvation through repentance.

Advent has rather lost its penitential character today, but as this song illustrates, there was once a more somber and sober sense of the ancient need for a savior and our ongoing need for His graces. As the first three verses indicate, we tend to stray and thus are afflicted by the weight and destruction of our sins. Our passions blow us about like leaves in the wind and we lose our way. Up goes the cry in the third verse:

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

In the final verse comes the Lord’s merciful answer:

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.

Therefore, let the Advent cry go up:

Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant justum
Aperiatur terra et germinent Salvatorem

Heavens drop dew from above and the clouds rain down the Just One
The earth shall be opened and bring forth the Savior.

Here is the hymn sung in Latin Chant; its sober tones capture well a time that was cloudy and dark and when the cry for a Savior pierced the clouds:

And here is a beautiful polyphonic rendering of the Ne Irascaris(verse 1) by William Byrd, who wrote it in lament for the destruction of the Catholic Church in England of the 16thcentury:

 

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