St. Paul instructs us in his Epistle to the Ephesians to work constantly for the building up of the Church, for the nurturing of Her members. In St. Jerome’s translation of the Scriptures, the exact passage I should like to focus on is as such: ad consummationem sanctorum in opus ministerii, in ædificationem corporis Christi. Literally translated, it means: …to the consummation of the holy ones (i.e. “saints,” believers) in the work of the ministers, in the edification of the Body of Christ (that is, the Church). Verse 12 of Ephesians 4 uses a word that appears only a handful of times in the entirety of the Holy Bible – ædificationem, edification. Indeed, it is used only five times: twice in Corinthians, twice in Ephesians, and once in I Thessalonians. And in each of those times, it used the same way. It refers to the edification of the Church and the faithful.
I had to check my concordances to make sure I had not miscounted the use of this word. Maybe I overlooked its use in the Old Testament. It seems to be the sort of word that would be associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. After all, the Temple figures prominently throughout the historical books of the Old Testament, which chronicle its commissioning, its building, its desecration, its re-consecration, etc. It is mentioned throughout the psalms, many of which were written as “psalms of ascent” that pilgrims would chant as they ascended to the Temple Mount to worship God in His sanctuary. The prophets are seen, major and minor alike, admonishing their contemporaries, instructing them on the ways of God, directing them to realize the significance of the Temple in their midst. And yet, the word “edification” appears nowhere in relation to the worship of the Old Testament.
So why, then, does St. Paul use it to explain the mission of the faithful, instructing them either to edify each other or to edify the Church? The word has overtones of a sacred nature. You wouldn’t say in response to a neighbor’s “hey, how are you,” “I’m feeling edified, and you?” No. Edification is a higher state than being content, satisfied, or even joyful. Edification comes from a contemplation of God and the right, a contemplation of His Creation and how we interact with it. Indeed, the original Latin verb ædificare means “to build up, especially in a spiritual sense.” Were not the Old Testament prophets doing just this, though? Were they not building up the people of God in a truly spiritual sense?
They were, to the greatest extent possible at that time. God dwelt with His people in the Holy of Holies, in the sanctuary of the Temple, wherein priests would offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. The Temple was the link between the Chosen People and their Lord, the place where Heaven and Earth met, where man and God walked together in harmony. However, when God became man, and was no longer hidden behind the veil in the Temple, no longer needing mediators such as priests and prophets, the world became the dwelling place of God, just as each person is a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” Christ came boldly into His Earthly reign, and did so for the edification of the people. The old ways yielded to the new, and we were given a new commandment, a new Sacrament, a new Church.
The fact that God left the Temple, that He chose to live and interact with His people, giving them the Incarnate Word, should speak to the need of the people, in every age, to be edified. For edification comes from many sources, but primarily, the spoken word. And what word is more sacred, more edifying, than the Word made Flesh? Christ is the source of grace which enables us to act in the way St. Paul desires. We would be unable to edify each other in the Church if we were not moved by the grace of God to do so. This grace rouses in us holy zeal and allows us in turn to diffuse that edification through His Church. And there is no surer method to edify the faithful than to share with them the Word Incarnate in a worthy manner.
Temple worship was a very particular thing, and no doubt edifying. I say without hesitation that I would undoubtedly have been edified in going to the Temple, in making that venerable pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, the change in terminology belies a change in presence. Whereas God was spiritually present to the Israelites, He is physically present to His Church in the Blessed Sacrament. The Divine Teacher comes into our midst to instruct us, to lead us, to edify us. And it is our duty similarly to lead all Christians to a sense of edification, especially in our churches, where God now walks with us in perfect harmony.
Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist makes this task of edification a simple one. If we see the small, white host raised in Benediction over us, do we not feel a sense of wonder and awe that God should dwell so near, yet so veiled? The contemplation of the host alone leads us to consideration of He Who is Goodness, Beauty, and Truth Himself. We gaze upon His Presence with humility in order to allow this lesson, this Divine edification, to take root in our souls. Just as the priest raises Our Eucharistic King above us in silent Benediction, so too does Christ raise our hearts and minds to consider the greater things.
It is this raising of ourselves, the heightening of our intellect, of our charity, of our devotion and reverence, which serves to edify our neighbors. If we bear witness to our Faith in a tangible, dignified way, those around us, within and without the Church, are obligated to take notice and pay attention. They realize that our efforts, our focus on Truth, are not trivial things. Anyone has the ability to edified, just as anyone who has a profound and reverent love of Christ has the ability through his or her actions to edify. And none have a more perfect opportunity to live the command of St. Paul than does the priest.
The priest stands at the altar charged with the singular task to bring Christ to His flock. He is charged with this duty by his congregation and by Christ Himself, Who called him by name to minister to Him in the sanctuary, to “go unto the altar of God, Who gives joy to my youth.” By his ordination, the priest finds himself to be, not his own person, but God’s and His Church’s. But this is absolutely necessary for the priest, for he surrenders his own aspirations, his own desires and agendas, for the sake of the edification of the faithful, the building up of the City of God.
For this reason, the priest must offer a Mass that is edifying. It must challenge the faithful to raise their hearts and minds to God. It must reach out to them as brothers and sisters in Christ. It must present them right teaching, and do so in a dignified way. For Truth demands reverence. If we attempt to convey the Sacred Mysteries without reverence, through a Mass stripped of genuflections and a sense of the beautiful, the Mass becomes a farce, a cross between the unbloody reenactment of Calvary and a Broadway musical. And this does not edify. It entertains. And nowhere in the Old Testament or the New did the prophets, evangelists, or St. Paul tell us “entertain the faithful in the Body of Christ.” No. We are told to edify and be edified in the transforming presence of Christ.
Therefore, each Mass must be offered with an eye to respecting the integrity of the ritual, a ritual which was designed to bring God to His people and His people to Him. Our own ideas on inclusivity or approachability are shown to be incredibly hollow and ineffective when presented with the immutable beauty of a liturgy whose priest sets out with the goal of edifying his congregation, not entertaining it. The eastward-orientation of the priest at Mass, with congregation and priest facing God in prayer together, prevented priests from turning the Mass into a show. While a priest could very easily offer an irreverent Mass facing the tabernacle or the people, when his face is turned towards God, the people assume that His thoughts are with God. When his face is towards the congregation, countless distractions might arise which, then, hinder the edification of the people.
The rubrics are not there to overcomplicate the Mass, to take it away from the people. Rather, the rubrics are there to bring the Mass to the people in the most authentic way possible. They ensure that the faithful are edified by holding the Mass as something sacred, something that belongs to the people, yet belongs to God, too. For, just as the Temple belonged to the people, the sanctuary was God’s. There has always been a designation, in the Old Testament and the New, between what is sacred and what is profane, “profane” literally meaning “outside of the shrine.” While God deigned to leave His dwelling in the Temple, this did not mean that the separation from the sacred and profane ceased to be.
This need for a reminder of what is sacred and what is not led to the advent of the communion rail, the rood screen, the iconostasis. Each of these liturgical delineations serve, not to separate the sacrifice of the Eucharist from the people, but to bring the people to the altar of God in a worthy, reverent way. The communion rail, for example, is actually considered an extension of the altar. And so, when communicants kneel at the altar rail to receive Our Lord, they are kneeling at the very table of God. When we have the Blessed Sacrament brought to us by designated members of the lay faithful, a sense of dependency on man is created. Whereas the communion rail invites us to come to God to receive Him at the very doorstep of mercy, we must now come to a fellow pilgrim to receive Our Lord.
I do not say this to demean our Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. In many parishes, they serve a necessary function. However, in many other parishes, they lead the faithful away from edification. When a young child sees a crowd of lay people distributing the Blessed Sacrament like so many overworked pharmacists dispensing medication, the unique role of the priest is diminished. Indeed, it is demeaned. And what is even worse, compounding this, is that the faithful fail in our mission to edify each other. If we fail to see the priest as a representative of Christ, if we fail to grasp the Real Presence because of the feigned enthusiasm of “Eucharistic Ministers,” we fail to edify each other, to impart right teaching to the faithful.
It has been said that there is no more eloquent sermon a priest can offer than a well-said Mass. A well-said Mass edifies the faithful. How many times have you left Mass in the past month feeling edified? How many times have you left Mass in the past month feeling frustrated? The countless distractions introduced inorganically to the Mass over the past several decades, the many feminizations and simplifications embraced to “make Mass more accessible,” have led the faithful away from the instruction of St. Paul, away from being aware of God’s awesome presence in our midst. Tabernacles are crossed without due reverence. Our Lord’s Body is ground underfoot by less-than-vigilant communicants. Sanctuary lamps burn out, leaving only memory to make the faithful recall the presence of Christ in our churches. This is not edification. This is, rather, evidence of a liturgical self-absorption.
This pride is what alienates the faithful, what makes them leave Mass still hungering for the Sacred. For while Christ has come to them sacramentally, they have not been edified. They have been, as I said, entertained. More accurately, I think it should be said that they have been “entertained at.” We recycle the same trite pop songs because “people like them.” Certainly people like them, for they are steeped in a sentimentality that has no real place in the liturgy. To focus on our feelings, on our own musical entertainment is to focus on ourselves, on our tastes, on what “sounds nice.” But what “sounds nice” and what “is sacred” are two separate questions. I would contend that what is genuinely sacred will always “sound nice,” for if music is authentically sacred, is artful, dignified, and universal, it will perfectly compliment the liturgical action in such a way as to rouse the faithful to contemplation of God.
And nothing rouses this contemplation in our hearts and minds as does the beautiful. Sacred art, architecture, and music appeal to our sensual natures. And in our age, which is obsessed with the senses, it seems as if we as a Church are afraid to meet this challenge. Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste all come together in the sacred liturgy, and the proper meeting of these senses is the surest way, combined with the priest’s humility and reverence, to edify the faithful. There is no shame in admitting to ourselves that we like nice things. Beauty appeals to us because it is an innate desire placed in us by the Creator in order to discover His presence in the world. It is a simple way to let God speak to us, by surrounding ourselves with holy reminders.
This age is, perhaps, the most sensual (sense-based) age in recent centuries. Our youth are constantly bombarded with music and images of a decidedly profane nature. What would happen, do you think, if sacred art and music found their worthy home, not on museum walls and in concert halls, but in our churches? The hunger in our souls to be edified would be met. We would encounter God in so many ways, all of which pointing us undeniably to His Real Presence, a presence so often ignored or forgotten even by those who profess a belief in it. This unfortunate reality can only be rectified by the humble and loving persistence of those of us who understand the integral nature of traditional liturgy and aesthetics. It is up to us, in our limited capacities, to lead our brothers and sisters to Christ in this unique way. Not everyone is called to do so, but some of us are. And we must be obedient to God, to His prophets, to His evangelists and saints, and strive constantly and in everything to work towards “the consummation of the holy ones in the work of the ministers, in the edification of the Body of Christ.”