The "Rorate" Mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary is traditionally celebrated in the dark just before dawn
The season of Advent falls each year in the dark month of December and it is a month when we see the general theme of the liturgical season being echoed in nature. Darkness has crept over the world, and is increasing each day. Yet, there is hope for soon the days will begin to lengthen and the sun will conquer the night. The earth reveals that there is a light in this dark place and that Light reigns victorious.
The Church makes this truth more visible with an ancient tradition (often forgotten) called the “Rorate” Mass. This votive Mass during Advent in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary receives its name from the first words of the opening chant in Latin, Rorate caeli, or in English “Shower, O heavens.”
The Mass is most often celebrated in communities devoted to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (aka, the “Latin Mass”), but is also an option for parishes that celebrate Mass in the vernacular.
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What is peculiar to this celebration of the Eucharist is that it is traditionally celebrated in the dark, only illuminated by candlelight and typically just before dawn. The symbolism of this Mass abounds and is a supreme expression of the Advent season.
First of all, since the Mass is normally celebrated right before dawn, the warm rays of the winter sun slowly light up the church. If timed correctly, by the end of Mass the entire church is filled with light by the sun. This speaks of the general theme of Advent, a time of expectation eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Son of God, the Light of the World. In the early Church Jesus was often depicted as Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun,” and December 25 was known in the pagan world as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Saint Augustine makes reference to this symbolism in one of his sermons, “Let us celebrate this day as a feast not for the sake of this sun, which is beheld by believers as much as by ourselves, but for the sake of him who created the sun.”
Connected to this symbolism is the fact that this Mass is celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, often referred to by the title “Morning Star.” Astronomically speaking the “morning star” is the planet Venus and is most clearly seen in the sky right before sunrise or after sunset. It is the brightest “star” in the sky at that time and heralds or makes way for the sun. The Blessed Mother is the true “Morning Star,” always pointing us to her Son and so the Rorate Mass reminds us of Mary’s role in salvation history.
Secondly, it echoes to us the truth that the darkness of night does not last, but is always surpassed by the light of day. This is a simple truth we often forget, especially in the midst of a dark trial when the entire world seems bent on destroying us. God reassures us that this life is only temporary and that we are “strangers and sojourners” in a foreign land, destined for Heaven.
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Last of all, a beautiful ray of symbolism is found in the custom of all present holding lighted candles throughout the Mass. Certainly this is a practical way of illuminating the church, but it also symbolizes the reality that darkness is dispelled by a unification of many individual lights. Indeed, when all of us together let our lights shine before men, not hiding them under a bushel basket, we are able to illuminate the world and easily destroy the darkness before us.
In the end, the Rorate Mass is a beautiful tradition in the Church that helps us to enter in to the Advent season. Above all it helps us to remember and reflect on a central truth of our faith: darkness is a passing shadow and flees more speedily when it sees a multitude of lights.