By Veronica A. Arntz
The parable of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom reveals a significant key for understanding our relationship with Christ: We are meant to be watchful, waiting for the hour of His coming with anticipation. Five virgins were wise, and five were foolish. Five had a sufficient amount of oil to meet the delayed bridegroom, while five did not. Some of us await the second coming of Christ with an awakened spirit, while others live our lives as if He does not exist. If we consider this parable within the context of sacred liturgy, we could say the following: The wise virgins are the ones who listen for the voice of the Lord within the texts; they are the ones who are prepared to meet the Bridegroom by listening to His words. In a particular way, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite can foster what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the “spirit of awakenedness,” which he considers to be the spirit necessary to “conform to the sursum corda.”
This parable about the wise and foolish virgins appropriately sets the tone for discussing the spirit of waiting in the Extraordinary Form, because this form of the Roman Rite possesses a manifestly nuptial character. The words of the rite reveal both the love of the Bridegroom for us, but also, the love that we ought to give Him through praise and thanksgiving. While much has been said to men about the Extraordinary Form being the natural place to cultivate a priestly or religious vocation, it seems that women can relate very well to this nuptial character of the Mass. In a special way, women can discover the means and the grace for anticipating the Bridegroom, like the five wise virgins, through the sacred texts and form of the usus antiquior.
Before looking at particulars, it would be helpful to recall that salvation history is, primarily and fundamentally, a love story. In fact, it is the love story, by which all other stories of romance derive their meaning. From the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, when God created man and woman in his own image, even when they fell from Him and rejected His love, He has been wooing his people with love, calling them to return to Him when they have fallen into sin. God’s love for mankind is patient and merciful; He waits for us to overcome our foolishness and return to Him (Exodus 34:6-7, RSV). God speaks to us in the language of love, through the eros of the Song of Songs: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil” (Song of Songs 4:1).
Perhaps the most astounding example of this reality of God’s love is expressed in Hosea, when God asks Hosea to marry a prostitute, in order that her unfaithfulness might embody the relationship of Israel to God. Even then, God anticipates the future when His bride will return to Him: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal’” (Hosea 2:14, 16). The faithfulness of God stands in stark contrast to our own infidelity, yet He is always willing to call us back to Himself, that we might delight with Him in the eternal paradise.
The traditional Roman Rite is a living icon of the nuptial relationship between Christ and His Church. We can see this in several ways. For example, let us first look at the festive nature of the Old Mass, evident in the florid pomp and circumstance with which it celebrates the Holy Mysteries.
Josef Pieper writes that the festival naturally arises out of joy. He explains that the reason for the joy is always the same: “… possessing or receiving what one loves, whether actually in the present, hoped for in the future, or remembered in the past.” He continues: “Joy is the response of a love receiving what he loves.” This is why weddings are great times of festivity: The joy and love of the new husband and wife overflows into the whole community. In a similar way, the liturgy is a time of festivity, and in fact, as Pieper explains, the most festive festival, because in it we receive the Beloved in joy, a joy so much the greater, as our Spouse’s condescension is unmerited. When we receive the God who is love when celebrating the liturgy, He becomes ours, and our hearts overflow in the joy of communal festival.
Indeed, the very first prayers of the priest and server attest to the supreme joy of the sacred liturgy: “Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam”—“I will go in unto the altar of God. To God who giveth joy to my youth.” In the sacred liturgy, we humbly approach the throne of God, the house of our Beloved, who brings us the joy of our salvation. Like a maiden approaching her groom with great joy and youthful steps, we eagerly come to the altar of God, to receive the precious gift of the Eucharist, which is the true bread of love that will sustain us unto eternal life. Indeed, this spirit of joy within the sacred liturgy is not like the spirit of acedia, or spiritual sloth, of the five foolish virgins; rather, one who rejoices in the sacred liturgy is fully awake to the voice of the Lord, because she loves to hear Him, and she delights in His every word. She is like the faithful individual of Psalm 1, who delights in the law of the Lord day and night (Psalm 1:2). In the sacred liturgy, we approach the nuptial banquet between God and His baptized faithful, as we anticipate with joy the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-7).
In addition to festivity, the traditional liturgy expresses itself with a feminine virtue of submissive attention. Through the sacred liturgy, a woman can learn the art of submissiveness and self-gift to Christ, her one true Bridegroom, and more, she can teach this to others. Putting aside all modern stereotypes concerning submissiveness, the letter to the Ephesians explains the true relationship between Christ and His Church in nuptial language: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). This attitude of submissiveness goes beyond simply wearing a chapel veil at Mass, while that is certainly a beautiful, laudable, and encouraged tradition. Rather, like the five wise virgins, the woman who is submissive to the liturgy is ready to follow her Lord’s call; she is ready to do His will whenever he should call upon her. Just as she is spiritually awake to His voice, she is ready to give herself completely to Him. In the offering of the bread and wine, the priest prays:
Suscipe, sancte Pater, omnipotens aterne Deus, hanc immaculatam hostiam, quam ego indignus famulus tuus offero tibi Deo neo vivo et vero, pro innumerabilibus peccatis, offensionibus, et neglegentiis meis, et pro omnibus circumstantibus, sed et pro omnibus fidelibus christianis vivis atque defunctis: ut mihi et illis proficiat ad salutem in vitam aeternam. Amen.
Receive, O holy Father, almighty, eternal God, this spotless host, which I, thine unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my own countless sins, offenses, and negligences, and for all here present; as also for all the faithful Christians, living or dead; that it may avail for my own and for their salvation unto life eternal. Amen.
These prayers of the ancient Roman Rite breathe the spirit of a sober humility that is conscious of our true metaphysical situation before God. We offer ourselves to God, that He might do with us as He wills, for our own salvation. He is the living and true God, the one who wrought our salvation by His death on the Cross, and He is thus the head of the Church; the Church, as His Bride, ought to give everything entirely back to Him. The one who loves is always ready and willing to do whatever the beloved desires, and we should be ready to do the same for our supreme Beloved, who is the Lord of our lives. Indeed, all the prayers of the offertory and leading into the consecration manifest this attitude of submissiveness, for we are giving our humble gifts (gifts that were given to us by God in the first place) and asking for His blessing in return.
Indeed, we should not be at all surprised that there is such a lack of understanding of the sacrament of marriage within our culture and even within our own Church, given that the sacred liturgy is often tossed aside and celebrated without reverence or care. While much more could be said on this specific connection of the sacrament of marriage and the sacred liturgy, let us be content to say the following: If the liturgy is considered the sacrament that celebrates the nuptials between God and His people, then it follows that man and woman can learn how to model their own married life from that liturgy.
As I have stated, a woman can learn the art of submissiveness to her Lord through the liturgy, which in turn can teach her how to be submissive in the appropriate way to her husband. Conversely, a woman’s faithful example can teach a man the virtues of humility, a self-gift he needs to live the spiritual life. Moreover, particularly in the Extraordinary Form, the role of the priest can teach a woman the nature of true manhood. The priest gives a model for what all men should be: Totally dedicated to God, disciplined, self-giving, and humble. If we consider what happens so often in the Novus Ordo, that the priest often feels compelled to make up the words of the Mass or ignore the deeper realities of the Church’s teachings on purgatory, hell, and sin, then we can begin to understand why so many men do not attend Mass anymore, and why women do not really know what to look for in a future husband. As such, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is a school, in many ways, for understanding how we might pursue the sacrament of marriage.
Third and finally, the nuptial character of the usus antiquior is manifest through the “lingering in love” of the rich, sacred texts. Those who are in love desire to be together and do not want to leave each other’s company. In a similar way, when we attend the sacred liturgy, we should be ready and willing to lavish everything upon God and spend as much time with Him as possible. We see this in a particular way through the structure of the Extraordinary Form: The Asperges is sung and prayed before the priest even approaches the altar, and we dwell over the Kyrie and Gloria (depending on the season) through sacred chant.
Some of prayers specifically speak to this lingering in love: “Accendat in nobis Dominus ignem sui amoris, et flammam aeternae caritatis.”—“May the Lord enkindle within us the fire of his love, and the flame of everlasting charity.” This prayer reminds of the quote from St. John Chrysostom, which Pieper quotes, “Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas.”—“Where love rejoices, there is festivity.” We especially ask the Lord that He may enkindle His love within us, like a roaring fire that never ceases, so that we might always dwell in the liturgical spirit of His love, which is fostered by our attentive listening to His voice. Again, we pray, “Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitations gloriae tuae”—“O Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwelleth.” We long to remain in the Father’s house; we delight at its beauty, we marvel at his wondrous works, and we rejoice in His great love for us.
This spirit of lingering, and of anticipating our Lord’s great love, cannot exist when the liturgy is rushed through quickly – why would we want to hurry through the prayers in less than an hour, when all our heart desires is to delight in His presence? Finally, the older form of the Mass does not even end with the final blessing. The love we have for our Lord is so great that it spills out into the Last Gospel, the recitation of John’s Prologue. And what a great hymn of love is this Prologue: We recognize that the Word became flesh for us, and “dedit eis potestatem filios Dei fieri: his, qui credunt in nomine ejus”—“and he gave them power to become sons of God: to them that believe in his name.” Through Christ, we become His children, and the prayers of the sacred liturgy help us to delight and linger in that reality, which we carry within ourselves throughout the rest of the week.
In the final analysis, the traditional Latin Mass is a school for learning to become the Bride of Christ, for learning how to love Him with all our mind and our strength. Through the sacred liturgy, we can learn to be like the five wise virgins, who anticipated the coming of the Lord by having a sufficient amount of oil for their lamps.
Let us carefully attend to the state of our hearts, that our hearts may always be overflowing with love for Christ and for our neighbors; let us foster this love by approaching the liturgy with care and attentiveness. Let us see in the great prayers of the Church’s tradition the appropriate means for preparing our hearts to meet the Lord on the last day, when the faithful shall all be made one in Him in the eternal nuptial banquet. As we have shown, the prayers of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass open our hearts in a particular way to the nuptial character of the liturgy; let us then be attentive and watchful, waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom with great joy and rejoicing, for it is in Him alone that we have our hope.