December 9, 2023
The Catholic Church has been called the Church of “bells and smells” because she communicates spiritual truths, those that transcend the physical world, by a variety of sensory signs. The Catechism explains why this method is especially suited to human nature: “As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols” (CCC §1146). Preeminent among these signs are the sacraments.
“In our sacramental system, the Church uses things that are sensible, that the five senses can perceive,” says Fr. Paul Check, Executive Director of Our Lady’s Shrine; “and those natural things are then put to the service of supernatural things, because of the grace of the Incarnation, because Christ has remade the world.” Thus, in her rituals, and in a particular way in the liturgy, the Church makes visible the drama of salvation.
This symbolic language shapes the distinctive ceremony of the Rorate Caeli Mass, held just before dawn with no light except from candles on the altar. This Mass, introduced at the Shrine last year, is scheduled to be offered every year on the first Saturday of Advent, which falls this year on December 9. “Light is … a way for us to understand that without Christ the soul is in darkness and is not able to find fulfillment,” explains Fr. Check. “The Rorate Mass takes this interplay, or even better the drama, of light and dark and sets it liturgically for us.”
The imagery extends further, in that the timing of the Mass aims to coordinate the elevation of the Host with the moment of sunrise. “In other words,” says Fr. Check, “the light from sunrise will come into the dark church as the rising of the Son of God in the hands of the priest is taking place.”
"Drop Down Heavens"
In addition, a close look suggests imagery not only of light in darkness, but of water on dry ground. The name Rorate caeli, translated “drop down heavens,” refers to the Introit or Entrance Antiphon from Isaiah 45:8: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause righteousness to spring up also. I, the Lord, have created it.” Fr. Check comments, “The earth has become dry and parched and lifeless because sin doesn’t bring forth life, but only aridity, only death; and heaven refreshes the earth by grace. Think of Baptism and the refreshment of the soul … Now the earth, as a symbol of creation, is receiving the grace from heaven and being refreshed.” All these images illustrate the deep longing and joyful anticipation that characterize Advent.
This imagery made a vivid impression on Kris Fry of the Marian Catechist Apostolate,
who attended the first Rorate Mass last year. “When you walk into church and you open
the doors,” she recalls, “your eyes immediately go to the altar, the focal part of the
church, and it is illuminated with these amazing, beautiful candelabras, and the glow …
I was just awestruck over it. It was beyond what I had expected.”
“There’s a lot of darkness in our world and we can have a lot of
despair. But if we bring the Lord into our life and let His light shine through us and be
with us, things become more clear, and they come brighter.” - Kris Fry
To Jesus Through Mary
The Rorate Mass is also a Marian devotion, hence its connection to Saturday. As Fry
points out, it is Our Lady who brings us light in bringing us her Son: “It’s a beautiful way
to start the Advent season, to really help us focus on the coming of Our Lord and to
honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, because it was she who brought the Light of the World
into our lives.”
The Rorate Mass is thus a doubly fitting devotion for Advent: It helps the faithful to
embrace the season’s joyous anticipation, and to do so with Our Lady. In keeping with
the Church’s tradition of rich symbolism, the sacred drama of this Mass lifts hearts to
“the true light that … was coming into the world” (John 1:9).
Cardinal Burke will be giving the sermon
Fr. Check will be offering the Mass