The Fourth Sunday of Advent is also called Rorate Mass or Rorate Caeli Sunday. It is named for the Latin Introit that is sung to accompany the procession of the priest towards the altar. If you listen to this Latin chant, you will hear how profoundly beautiful it is, as it is an ardent plea for heaven to rain down justice upon our ruined world brought low by our sins. In this chant, we hear the old and fragile voice of the venerable prophet, Isaiah, crying out to God in lamentation. This is a cry for salvation, for consolation, and for comfort for God’s people, scattered and lost. You cannot hear this beautiful chant and not appreciate a longing for the Lord, and a sense of sorrow for our sins.
In so many ways, Isaiah is the prophet of Advent. He is sometimes called the evangelist of the Old Testament, because so much of his prophecy is centered on, and points toward, the coming Messiah. This Rorate Mass, this Fourth Sunday of Advent, also emphasizes Mary, as we imagine her great with child, riding upon a donkey as she and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem. Isaiah had foreseen not only the coming Christ, but he had foreseen Mary as well.
This particular prophecy was well-known by the Rabbis of old, as well as by the early Christians, who understood the prophecy the way the Church does today. Isaiah had tried to be an advisor to King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz’s name is one we read in the long list of names in the genealogy of Jesus. He was a young king when he began, and wiser adversaries and enemies took advantage of his youthful bravado. The impressionable king made unwise alliances with the Assyrians and left Israel to be picked off. But it wasn’t just incompetence.
Ahaz was scandalously wicked. He was the ultimate turncoat. He was a scoundrel with no strong convictions except personal preservation. He embezzled from the Temple to pay tribute to heathen kings. He worshipped whatever pagan god his allies worshiped at the time. He blasphemously locked the doors of the Temple of God, and set up altars to false gods throughout his kingdom. He is said to have even sacrificed one of his own sons to their evil god Moloch. Ahaz was a disaster of a king, and he died young at 36. The people of Jerusalem were so ashamed of Ahaz that even his own son refused to bury him with his royal ancestors in the tomb of the kings.
Times didn’t get any darker for Judah than during the reign of Ahaz, and so it is appropriate that he figures prominently in the last and darkest week of Advent.
So Ahaz, having made an utter mess of his life, and having threatened the very survival of his people, at last turned to Isaiah for help. Isaiah assured him, that despite his ineptitude and villainy, evil would not ultimately prevail. Isaiah foresees a sign that the House of David (Ahaz’s dynastic family) will eventually be delivered by the birth of a future Messiah (identified as Emmanuel, or God with us), and that this Messiah (or king) would be born of a virgin. And so was set into motion the future birth of the Christ child, whose birth we look to commemorate with Christmas.
Isaiah calls upon God’s mercy and future salvation, and calls out from the past to pray that grace will rain down upon God’s people. In this last week of Advent, as we are busy with last minute preparations for Christmas, let us look to the wonder of the fulfillment of that prophecy, who is Christ, born of a virgin.
Click on the link below to hear the Introit chant of Rorate Caeli: