The masculine and the feminine in the liturgy is a common topic on the blogosphere right now, so I want to put polemic aside and just see how the Sacred Scripture sees male and female symbolism in the sacrifice of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Because we’re looking to Scripture, I want to quote the man who I believe is the greatest Scripture scholar alive, Dr. Brandt Pitre. He is a young husband and father raising several children in Louisiana. Dr. Pitre contends that, for St. Paul, the main difference between male and female is not strength versus weakness, but rather transcendent versus immanent. Let’s consider the definitions of these two terms before looking at the Bible:
Transcendent—beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience. (For God) existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe.
Immanent—existing or operating within; inherent. (For God) permanently pervading and sustaining the universe.
We’ll come back to these definitions to see how they play into the liturgy, but first let’s look at a human analogy. Pitre tells the story about how one of his children ran in the street and scraped her knee. His wife comforted the child, held her, cried with her, nurtured her and bandaged her. A bit later, when his daughter was done crying, Brandt lovingly reminded her that she could sustain a lot worse injuries if she continues to play in traffic.
Immanent: The female gaze nurtures the family within and by compassion. Transcendent: The male view looks beyond to prevent unintended negative consequences in the future. This isn’t to say that women aren’t smart enough to do anything but put on Band-Aids and it doesn’t mean that men are called to be heartless disciplinarians who only think of the future. But Pitre’s family story does give a clue where we’re going as we equate transcendent with male and immanent with female. (See the definitions above, again.)
Another human example before we get to the liturgy: When I do “honest-question-and-answer-with-Padre” for uncatechized high-school students, I let them ask me hard questions. Inevitably, someone wants to know why women can’t be priests. I begin by asking all the girls to immediately raise their hands if they have imagined in their mind the day when they (the girls) get on one knee and propose to their future groom. Of course they all giggle; no hands are raised. Horrified, I ask “Why not!?” In a voice that says you idiot you already know the answer, some bold girl usually says, “Because I want my fiancé to propose to me.” I agree with her. Then, I get into explaining that just as the young man can and will hold out the ring, making the first move to the bride, so also only the priest can hold up the body-of-Christ and say to his bride, the Church, “This is my body.”
Yes, “the primacy of self-donation relies on the man” as St. John Paul II said in his Theology of the Body Wednesday audiences. The man must go beyond himself. A woman deserves to be pursued, and, although overused in Catholic circles today, there is truth to the analogy that the young man is the bee and the woman is the flower. She truly is “a garden enclosed” as Solomon wrote of his beloved. I even try to give these teens a PG version of transcendence and immanence in the intimate gift of marriage: The man must be the first to make the move outside himself both physically and spiritually. Even in making children, man gives in order to receive; woman receives in order to give. He goes outside himself into the garden enclosed, a garden that will eventually nurture new life in warmth and tenderness, away from the hostile, outside world.
You probably see where this analogy is going:
Another disclaimer to prevent mindless comments below: This is not to say male=good and female=bad. In fact, the writings of every Catholic mystic who I’ve ever read who has visited heaven say there are more women there in heaven than men! (Read that sentence again if you think this article is sexist.) Thus, this male/female business is not a description of good/bad. Another disclaimer: I am fully aware that religions cross some lines on this topic of transcendence. The idea of Allah is totally transcendent in Islam. The idea of pagan gods is mostly immanent (like all the gods of the Egyptians when Moses lived there: dogs, frogs, river…notice, all things of this earth.) Only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is totally transcendent and totally immanent, hence the name God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
I recently got back from Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Kolkata, India. Next to this home, there is an enormous temple to the goddess Kali, who is the goddess of destruction. Hindus worship the idols that are made of the things of this earth. In fact, even though I didn’t go into the temple, I walked a mile-long street in front of the temple to find full tens of thousands of idols and flowers to purchase and subsequently worship.
However, in the ancient near East, it was “a first” for a Mesopotamian to hear of a God who transcended even the notion of having a name. Yes, this is our God: I AM WHO AM. Thus, not having a name, is one reason why Adonai is transcendent. No one could control Him. No one could manipulate Him. Unlike a legion of pagan goddesses, Yahweh is one in Being. The many pagan gods (and more often, goddesses) were usually earth-based, not heaven-based. In the Bible, St. Stephen quotes the prophet Isaiah to the high priest before his martyrdom. Notice how he highlights God’s transcendence:
“Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”—Acts 7:48
Why was there a male-only priesthood in the Old Testament? Many critics of Western religion claim that this was because of the misogynistic tendencies of Judaism. However, this is easily disproved by a cursory glance at Greco-Roman culture, which had both unspeakable violations against women and female priestesses. Judaism is different on both accounts. Dr. Brandt Pitre gives us a clue why God revealed himself as father, not as mother: He was to be experienced as totally transcendent so that He would not be conflated with the gods (demons) of this earth, especially those of the ancient near East.
The Incarnation of Christ then brings new beauty and a surprising immanence to God’s other-worldliness and majesty: God, who is beyond us in holiness, comes into our mess, to take our sin. The groom comes for His beloved! Christ comes to die for His Church on earth. But lest we fall into presumption, we had to recognize His Majesty first, hence we have the Old Testament being revealed before the New Testament.
There is something true about the term “Mother Earth” or sailors who refer to the ocean as a “she.” Most cultures understand that “she” is immanent, here-and-now. Have you ever heard our planet referred to as “Father Earth”? Of course not. Every culture I have ever read about uses the term “Mother Earth.” I don’t know why this is, but I’ll give it a shot: It’s because deep in every human’s heart we know that Earth is life-giving, relationship-based, like a woman. “Woman is the archetype of humanity,” wrote St. John Paul II. Why? Because God creates us and pursues us.
God is transcendent and beyond. The primacy of self-donation relies first upon God. We never asked to be created. Not men. Not women. He first loved us. No one thought to invite the second person of the Trinity to earth to save us. Not men. Not women. Woman therefore is the archetype of the Church, for we all stand in reception mode before God, albeit in a non-sexual way. Still, the sexual act is a dim reflection of this reality: Man gives in order to receive and woman receives in order to give. The Church remains feminine in a state of reception, for only Jesus can give the Eucharist through his priests. (On a personal note, I believe that is why I am so turned-off by women distributing the body of Christ. It is not because women are less holy. Rather, if a theology of the body has anything to do with the Mass, the notion of female EMHCs promotes the same reality spiritually that transvestitism promotes physically: Living outside the roles of the primacy of the gift of the body. That sounds polemical, but only if gender matters neither for marriage nor for the liturgy. The one thing you can’t do is disapprove of same-sex marriage and then claim that the above paragraph is extreme.)
Even the male anatomy points beyond, like the straight lines of the Liturgy of Old. It is transcendent, beyond itself, gazing to the heavens…not gazing in the eyes of parishioners with a goofy smile. Circles, on the other hand, represent the uterus, the immanent gift of a woman to form children and maintain children within her—within her physically for nine months, and within her heart spiritually for decade after decade after decade. Men know this love spans continents. This is why most dying soldiers in the jungle of a foreign country clamor in their stupor for their mother. The dying men need to be back in the immanent arms of mercy, of compassion. Sometimes, the very body that once gave life has the capacity to bring something back to life by simple nurturing and love. This is why these men cry (rightly! usually but not always!) for their Mom, not their Dad.
Most Americans now believe in the reality of the above paragraph, even if they don’t like stereotyping. But I would argue that this is why the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is so important right now. Barring abortion and contraception, the West understands the role of mother and immanence. However we have lost the notion of the transcendent—the reality of God as Father. This goes beyond the fact that the Latin Mass doesn’t have hyper-immanent music like “Let us build the city of God.” (Yes, God, perhaps we could use Your help in building Your city.) Rather, the Latin Mass is all about God. Consider which direction the priest faces, and the volume of his voice. The little sinful priest is in the presence of a formidable Majesty of infinite holiness. We have to ask: How did Moses speak on Mt. Sinai? What if Moses had turned His back on God—even if it were to try to win the people to God for good reasons? What fool would turn his back on the lightning, thunder, trumpets and smoke? Both in Old and New Testament, the priest is making propitiation to God; he is speaking to God; God is transcendent in a way that is far beyond the little priest. This is why the Latin Mass is anything but clericalistic.
The priest speaks on behalf of the community, but he is not speaking to the community in an immanent, relationship-based way (except for the homily which is considered a pause of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass according to traditional Catholic teaching.) Why? Because in the sacrifice itself, the priest (both Hebrew and Catholic) is making sacrifice for the community, and the community’s opinion of him is irrelevant. In the Old Testament, the priest is there to “sanctify for the purification of the flesh” and the New Testament priest goes beyond this to “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13, 14)
I don’t know what Dr. Pitre thinks of the Latin Mass, but now that we understand transcendent and immanent, male and female (from the Scriptures) I want to bring this theology and anthropology to the Liturgy itself and give four reasons why the Extraordinary Form of the Mass wonderfully maintains the masculine transcendent in a unifying way:
1) The quiet voice of the priest reminds the people that God is beyond them. “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak, eyes, but do not see.”—Psalm 115
2) The Traditional Latin Mass, where everyone faces the same direction, is a reminder that moral doctrine is not determined by looking within the community but outwards to Divine Revelation. Usually the sermon at the TLM conveys this reality too, but not always.
3) The priest is a father, and it is he who is given the gift by God to launch his family transcendently into the world by strengthening them with the Holy Eucharist. Dr. Brandt Pitre quotes a stunning secular statistic: Children will imitate their mother’s religious habits from age 1-13 but they will imitate their father’s religious habits from age 14 to death. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it was upwards of 80% or 90%. The Extraordinary Form of the Mass respects this in having no Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (most of whom are women in the Ordinary Form, statistically speaking.) Ite Missa Est is translated by Archbishop Fulton Sheen as: “Go. The sacrifice has been sent to God.” Do you notice how masculine and transcendent that is? Of course, this is no truer in Latin than it is in English. That’s not the point of departure. The rub is this: Who gave you Holy Communion is going to be spiritually linked to your transcendent launch (a father’s role) into a hostile world. Of course, the Eucharist is still the strengthening body of Christ regardless of the hands of the distributor. But look at the very vocabulary of the previous sentence. This is why within Byzantine Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the role of the priest as sole-distributor of Holy Communion is not only psychological, but essential to respecting the sacrifice and even the ordering of the angels. Why? Because the order of the angels—all of whom are present at Divine Liturgy in varying ranks—is ontologically reflected in the role of the male and female genders within this supreme act of worship. The priest functions as Christ; the deacon symbolizes an angel; the head-covered-woman symbolizes Mary (or even the wholeness of the Church.) For the Eastern Fathers, few crimes could compare with disrupting this order of worship and the distribution of the Sacred Mysteries. Folks, few off Athos are fighting over the Filioque anymore! I firmly believe that ecumenism with the East will fail until we fix our own liturgy.
4) The externals of the Traditional Latin Mass highlight the fact that the Mass is a sacrifice before it is a meal. Venerable Fulton Sheen pointed out how grotesque it would be if the Old Testament sacrifice animal were first eaten before it was sacrificed. So also, the Catholics who clamor for a Eucharistic meal but refuse to live sacrifice become “parasites on the Body of Christ,” according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
The transcendence of a sacrifice belongs to a male priesthood, called to go outside of his family, for the primacy of self-donation relies upon the man to make atonement before a God of infinite love and infinite holiness. The form of the Mass offered will naturally reflect the type of priest that you get, and vice versa. A priest who has formed himself to be an entertainer for Christ’s people will still be an entertainer, even with purified intentions of the salvation of souls. But a priest who sees his role as both self-immolating victim and sacrifice-confector will live in that way—joyful that He stands with Christ—but awesomely aware of eternal consequences.
We’re in a crisis of being unable to accept a quiet, transcendent priest who will not change doctrine. Not unlinked, we’re afraid of the silence and majesty of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. People understand that we have to be kind and talkative (immanent) but they do not understand that Divine Revelation and worship must touch upon the transcendent. As Dr. Pitre said, the most masculine thing ever said was: “This is my body given up for you.” The most feminine thing ever said was “Be it done unto me according to your will.” This is the life of Christ and His Church. The Son of God first lived in His Triune glory beyond us, and then (and only then) can we name it as a beautiful surprise that His Majesty would choose to be immanently Emmanuel, God-With-Us.