Homily for Rorate Caeli (Fourth Sunday in Advent)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Shower,
O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness.” So said the God of
all creation through the lips of His prophet Isaiah. Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord
and Savior, Jesus Christ, this Fourth Sunday of Advent in the historic church year is
called Rorate Caeli Sunday, meaning “Rain Down, O Heavens Sunday,” again from the
opening of the day’s introit. As you know, this Sunday is also the closing of Advent;
the fourth candle is lit, signifying the end of our liturgical wait for the birth of our
precious infant King. Tomorrow we will celebrate His blessed Nativity. But today, this
morning, we are still being instructed through Holy Scripture on how to prepare
ourselves beforehand. Remember, Advent is all about preparation, about making us
ready, both for our Lord’s birth at Christmas, His first advent, but most importantly, for
His final return, His eternal advent.
And this day, this Rorate Caeli Sunday, we are instructed by way of an example.
We are given the example of the holiest woman to ever live, the Blessed Virgin Mary,
whom Martin Luther once called our noblest gem after Christ Himself. Borrowing
Isaiah’s words, we poor sinners beg God above for His righteousness all the time, that
He might shower it upon us daily. That is our perpetual prayer. But when it does come,
when God’s righteousness comes, how are we to receive it exactly? Which is to say,
when God comes in Christ, how are we to receive Him? That’s the question worth
considering this morning, as we arrive at Advent’s conclusion.
Throughout the Gospels we encounter countless instances of how our Lord,
righteousness incarnate, in the flesh. was rejected by His own people. The Light once
shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it, as St. John says.
The people of Israel implored their God for salvation again and again, they beseeched
God for His righteousness, and yet when He finally sent His only-begotten Son to
them, they tore Him to pieces. They did not know Him, they did not take the time to get
to know Him, but instead yelled out, “Crucify Him,” and let the Pontius Pilate nail Him
to a cross.
But really, that was all fortunate enough, a felix culpa or happy fault in the Latin,
as St. Augustine once put it. You see, through their rejection of the Son of God, their
very own Messiah, through the Judeo-Roman slaying of the holy Lamb, the totality of
human sin was mercifully covered. Thanks be to God. And yet, even after that
sacrificial Lamb miraculously rose again on the third day, proving His identity, many
persisted in rejecting Him. For several thousand years now, how so many have turned
their backs on their redemption, and still do so. And even us miserable sinners, we have
abandoned our Lord at times as well. We are hardly guiltless in this. We have deserted
Him in favor of our own pet sins and the delights of our flesh, at least on occasion. We
have sought the pleasure of pride and lust and greed instead of the comfort of His
gospel and the perfection of His presence. We have begged the Lord for power and
prestige rather than His holy righteousness. Indeed, every sin we’ve ever sinned, every
sin we will someday sin, each one put our Lord on that despicable cross. Each one was
God’s personal human hurt. These iniquities of ours left Christ forsaken outside the
walls of the holy city, hanging on a cursed tree.
Man is fickle and faltering. That is fact. He wants to be saved but only on his
own terms. He wants righteousness to rain down from the heavens, but only on his
timing and to the benefit of his own ego. Such is the nature of the sinner, after all. Such
is our nature, dear faithful.
The old Adam within us each, the lingering sinner we daily wage war against this side
of heaven, wants to reject our God’s salvation and righteousness. He needs to reject it.
The old Adam is self-destructive, you see, and eternally so. But by God’s grace and
mercy, through our Holy Baptism, born in us each new day is a New Man, the Christ
Himself. Jesus now lives within us, in our beating hearts, through grace and faith, and
His Holy Spirit sanctifies us day by day, sometimes even against our fallen will. We
will admittedly continue to sin, but along the way, we will be sanctified, too. We are
presently being sanctified, whether we see it or not. It is a lifelong struggle, but the arc
bends toward our eventual holiness; what seems circular and Sisyphean at times is
regardless spiraling heavenward. And one of the ways the Spirit makes us holy is by
giving us biblical examples by which to learn. Today, the Holy Spirit shows us through
the inspired Word the example of the young Mary, a teenaged girl given the heavy task
of bearing the world’s salvation within her womb. When the archangel Gabriel came to
Nazareth to announce the Savior’s conception to Mary, she did not doubt him, she did
not complain or moan, she did not fret or flee under the weight of the charge. Instead,
she simply said in reply: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me
according to your word.”
After conceiving the Child King by the power of the Holy Spirit, young Mary
visited her relative, Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zachariah, and mother of John the
Baptist, a visitation about which we read in our gospel today. And upon her greeting
Elizabeth, little John heard the voice of Mary, God’s mother, and leapt in his own
mother’s womb. And Elizabeth, feeling that immense joy within her, herself exclaimed
many commendations upon the mother of her Lord, shouting “Blessed are you among
women!” among other things.
Elizabeth knew well the holy child in little Mary’s stomach. But most notably, to all
this honor and glory, to all this privilege and distinction and blessing offered her by her
relative, the virgin Mary replied humbly with beautiful verse, with what is called her
Magnificat or magnification: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she chanted, “and my
spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His
maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He Who
is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on
those who fear Him, from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His
arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the
mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with
good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in
remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed
forever.” This was Mary’s passionate song of praise. Put otherwise, Mary sang out loud
for joy about God raining down His righteousness upon His chosen people through her
own flesh. And she delighted in her role in God’s divine economy.
This is how the Blessed Virgin Mary received her Lord, this is how she
responded in song to God raining down His righteousness upon her and upon the land.
This is how Mary understood her place in God’s plan. She was a modest maidservant, a
passive recipient of God’s good grace. When Elizabeth hailed her and sought to glorify
and praise her, Mary insisted that the Lord alone be glorified and praised. When any
ever attempted to magnify Mary, her heart magnified the Lord in response. What a
shame it is that her identity has been so twisted, turned, and distorted into near idolatry
by some in the holy Christian church. Mary did not want any honor or undue
veneration for herself.
She was indeed blessed, and has been recognized as such by every generation, for she
physically bore the Lord Himself and breastfed her very own Redeemer. But she
moreover recognized her own littleness, her lowest estate, her spiritual need as one
equally born of the wretched sinful flesh.
When Gabriel came to her, she was probably not looking forward to becoming a
teen mom, as it were. It wasn’t a part of the plan she had for her life. But again, she did
not bicker, but rejoiced in God’s righteousness, however much it differed from her own
human will. She let it happen on His terms, on His timing, and did not insist on the
needs of her own imperfect heart. Mary simply stepped back and let the Lord do His
work through her. She received Him as her Savior, as One to Whom she owed her
everything. She feared, loved, and trusted her God above all things, so much so that she
let Him rest for nine long months inside her. And for that reason, the Holy Spirit lifts
her up for us this Fourth Sunday of Advent as our chief example – as the model for
how we, too, are supposed to receive our Lord; how we are expected to prepare
ourselves for Him and for His advent.
God will be born of the virgin Mary tomorrow. As we relive the life of Christ
throughout the church year, that history becomes a reality again through our Christian
liturgy. So the question is: are you yet prepared? Is your heart right this season? Is your
mind in a reverent place? What is Christmas really about for you? And even more
urgently than that, where are your heart and mind this morning. Have you been made
ready to receive your God? Are you put together in body and soul? Because He comes
here soon, from this sacred altar.
When you ascend these steps to receive Christ in His body and blood, you must do so
as one repentant and ready, lest you commune unworthily and to your great detriment.
You must receive Him as a lowly sinner who recognizes his or her desperate need for
To help you out, brothers and sisters, I strongly recommend to you this little
prayer to pray every time you come to the altar. It is called the Prayer of the Unworthy
or the Domine, non sum dignus, and it follows the words of the centurion’s prayer in
Matthew chapter eight. As you kneel here, speak this little prayer to yourself: “Lord, I
am not worthy that Thou shouldest enter under my roof, but only say the word and my
soul shall be healed.” Pray these words, for they will prepare you. I know from
experience. The church’s traditional prayers are born out of her wisdom. God prepares
your heart by first preparing your body, your mind, your lips. So pray this prayer and
never forget: what you receive here is not mere bread and wine distributed Sunday after
Sunday. Rather it is the same body and blood that once hung at Golgotha for your sins.
It is the same life-giving flesh of the God of all creation administered to you, His
beloved creation, as much-needed medicine. And today, that body and blood returns to
you, to heal you, to strengthen your faith, to make you ready. So receive your Lord
rightly. Be like Mary, be like the centurion, come ready, cognizant of your
unworthiness, and wholly prepared to be a passive recipient of God’s abundant grace.
Open your heart and magnify your Lord, so that He might nourish you in all your
And then, after you’ve been fed this morning, once you leave this building and
depart from this place, spend the next day really preparing yourself for your Lord’s
birth by meditating on your deep need for it. Treat this season properly.
Don’t be anxious about gifts and food and travel or whatever else. That is all secondary
and eternally inconsequential. Christ comes first, always. Tomorrow, we observe and
celebrate His Incarnation, when the God of all creation rained down His righteousness
upon the unworthy earth through the womb of the blessed virgin. Our salvation begins
at Bethlehem. So in this next twenty-four hours, be sure to receive that news of God’s
birth, of His advent, with humility and joy. Really contemplate it. Receive it like young
Mary once did.
Our God comes in littleness, in swaddling clothes. But in His birth was profound
righteousness, a righteousness later poured out in crimson on the cross, and a
righteousness now poured into you through that same Holy Spirit Who once
empowered the Almighty’s own conception. Take heart this season, be joyful, rejoice,
and again, with Paul, I say, rejoice. But above all, be meek, be humble, be modest,
recognize your unworthiness, acknowledge your need, and confess your passivity in all
things holy. And receive your God as the weak creature and poor sinner you really are.
Repent and receive the righteousness won for you by your Lord’s birth, by His life, His
ministry, His passion, death, and resurrection. God showers His righteousness from the
heavens this very day. So may the earth of your heart receive the rains fully. In the
most holy name of our righteous Lord and King, in the name of Jesus. Amen.