The Rorate Caeli is sung by choirs all over the world in the lead up to Christmas. It is not, however, a festive carol, or anything like it! It is a solemn, serious text, based on Old Testament prophecy and lament, and it expresses something far more true to human experience than the fluff and tinsel of ‘commercial Christmas’. The birth of Jesus is presented in the Rorate, not as something merely cute and sentimental, but as the answer to the real cry of our hearts.
Christmas is, for many, a ‘feel-good’ time, and long may it continue to be so, but the Rorate speaks from a different place. It speaks of the time when ‘the sanctuary has become a desert’, when ‘Jerusalem is desolate’: the experience of desolation is known to us all, especially in these difficult economic times. The singers of the Rorate speak of themselves as ‘sinners’, as ones who have ‘fallen like a leaf’: again, the experience of sin is universal, we all know what it is to fail, to fall.
But the Rorate does not let desolation and failure have the last word – these universal human experiences are allowed to open out into a cry: ‘Drop down dew, you heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One’. We do not hold ourselves the solution to pain and desire, desolation and failure. We must look to Another, and ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in Him’ (St Augustine). In Advent, the Rorate invites us not to numb our pain with presents, food and drink, but to cry out in our need to the Father, so that Christ can be born in our empty hearts as he was born in an empty stable.
In the Rorate Caeli, Israel’s desire for a Messiah becomes merged with the desire of all humanity for a final answer to suffering and frailty. For many of the Jews at the time of Christ, a Messiah meant one thing: a military leader who would overthrow the Romans and rule Israel like a second David. Jesus fulfilled none of these hopes. Instead, the Just One in the manger offered something infinitely more precious, to both Jews and Gentiles: a way home to the Father (John 14:6). ‘Be consoled my people… do not fear’.