My friend and former colleague, John Zmirak — the guy who friends of mine call their favorite writer, even now that I’m eligible for the honor — has written an an explosive article (at the excellent Inside Catholic) about the Mass. 

He’s an Extraordinary Form guy — a 1962 Missal guy, a Tridentine Mass guy. He sets out to address the question he has heard: “Why do you people care so much about externals?” His piece is hilarious, copiously linked to supporting material, clever, and wrong.

Well, ultimately wrong. Three things I know:

1. I know that the Extraordinary Form Mass has been a giant blessing for the Church before the Council and continues to be for many people afterwards.

2. One of my best friends is a new devotee; his wife, also a dear friend, said if she were to write about her experience (moving from turned off by to definitely a fan of the Extraordinary Form) she would call her article “Surprised by Beauty.”

3. My own exposure to the Extraordinary Form has been very limited, so I am not speaking from a personal preference point of view.

Zmirak goes through a list of possible reasons he might care about externals (aesthetics, love for Latin, nostalgia) and eliminates them. He scores by comparing the Catholic Church and the U.S. Navy: “It’s a machine built by geniuses so it can be operated safely by idiots.” I’d answer (with help from Benedictine College’s theology department) that it’s a machine built by God, not saints. In the end, though, John avoids the theological debate in order to pin his argument on an analogy instead. So will I.

So, why does he insist that the externals are important?

Because he says the Mass form is like a flag: An inessential, but vitally important thing. Imagine a new administration changed the flag. “If people accepted the change,” writes Zmirak, “what else would they be likely to accept?”

Um, not to put too fine a point on it, but the form of the Mass is not at all a flag.

Furthermore, it seems to me that to think of the form of the Mass as a flag points to a, er, major problem. It in fact forces us, the Novus Ordo friends of John, to restate our question. “Okay, forget my question about why you care about externals. Let me ask you this: Why do you wave your Mass around and wear it like a badge?”

Let’s think about this for a second. The Church doesn’t have or need a flag, because it isn’t a nation. Its members are tied to each other by bonds far deeper than political ones.

What is the Church? It’s a communio. It isn’t just like a family, it is a family (we share a Father and mother), but it’s more expansive than that. Christ calls himself the bridegroom and us the bride. Corporately, we’re the bride of Christ, we are so united to him that we are his body — just as “a man is united to his wife and they become not two but one flesh.”

Where does this happen in the Church? At Mass. We receive his body and blood, as a community — in communion — and we are one. As the Council taught, the Eucharist is both the sign and the reality of the unity of the Church, a unity that starts in baptism.

Where does this happen in marriage? In the consummative act and in its conjugal reaffirmation. In other words, through marital intimacy: On night one and on subsequent nights. This conjugal act is the “source and summit” of the unitive and procreative dimensions of a couple’s marriage.

But of course spousal unity is about a lot more than sexual union. To have a proper relationship, a husband and wife have to, well, do stuff with their clothes on. In fact, their highest priorities will consist almost entirely of stuff that happens outside the bedroom.

As important as sex is as the “source and summit” of their marital relationship, their behavior and relationship will start to look warped if they make sex the “center and preoccupation” of their relationship. Their marital relationship will start to be tense and unhappy and the very unity the act is supposed to affirm will become tenuous and fragile.

It’s the same with the Mass.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Not only do I know it’s possible to prefer the Extraordinary Form without obsessing about it, but the two most faithful devotees of the old Mass I know don’t obsess about it.

But I know some people do, and I know Zmirak in this piece comes perilously close.

Mass is public; sex is private. But just as I wouldn’t wave my Mass like a flag, I wouldn’t go winking at my wife and pointing to the bed too much, either. Doing either, it seems, would tend to alienate and irritate.

To complete the analogy: the conjugal act ought to have a certain order of events and should be respectful and true to the nature of the relationship. If you’re going to play music, it ought to be appropriate to the occasion, and not disrespect or distract. And the same goes for Mass.

But if a husband got too focused on the externals of the conjugal act, about the kind of scented candle and the lighting, and started insisting that the details should match Sept. 17, 1987’s details, and that only the one Journey tape was appropriate, and furthermore started talking about little else but the importance of the act, and the perfection of that 1987 experience …

His good wife would probably want to reorder his priorities a little bit.

Ultimately, we want Mass to be our expression of a relationship of which it is a very small (but very important) part. That’s why most of us — in both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary camps — know the externals should be right, but don’t obsess too too much about them.

So, John, put down your flag, stop pointing to the bed, and let’s talk about us for a change.

UPDATE: Contra at least one blog’s inference, this post should in no way be taken to suggest that I have a predeliction for Journey at intimate moments or at any other time.

UPDATE 2: The article originally was subtitled “Wave Your Freak Flag High?” This was directed to John, but I apologized to him for it. Its unfortunate implication was that I think the Extraordinary Form freaky. I do not.

UPDATE 3: John Zmirak once developed this spousal analogy about Mass as well. Some who object to my words might prefer his:

“The priest acts in the person of Christ. Christ acts as high priest, and offers himself as victim to God the Father, in expiation for the sins of man. In the person of the priest, Christ weds himself to the congregation, which stands for the Church, Christ’s mystical Bride. Just as the priest’s sacrificial role in the New Testament theology is a direct outgrowth—down to many of the rituals and prayers used—of the High Priest’s Temple ritual in Judaism, so this matrimonial theology grows directly out of the Old Testament understanding of the Jewish people as wedded to Yahweh. (See the Song of Songs and Hosea for lovely, poetic meditations on this theme in the Hebrew Bible.) . . .

“This marriage between the priest and the congregation, between Christ and the Church, is at the very heart of Catholic theology. It connects to the sacredness of the sexual act, and expresses the very reason why (as we believe) God became a man—in order to unite the mass of fallen, weak humanity to himself, in a mystical sacrament of love. In pagan religions and ancient Judaism, the role of a priest—one who offers sacrifice—was distinctly and utterly masculine. This is true in all the traditional liturgies of the Church, East and West, along with the papal mass in Rome, which dramatically depict Christ’s manhood along with his transcendent Godhood, in the imperfect but sanctified masculine person of the priest.”