Why an Altar Rail?

09-11-2022Weekly ReflectionFr. Chris Axline

In Genesis 3, we read the account of the Fall, the moment Original Sin corrupted the human condition and wounded our relationship with God; Adam and Eve grasped for what belongs to God alone and, as they reached out to take the fruit, they told God they didn’t need Him, that we’d rather do things our way. This grasping at what belongs to God alone is the root of all sin, a lack of trust in the Providence of God.

Fast forward then a few millennia and we get Jesus who institutes the new food from the tree of life, the Eucharist, His very Body and Blood instituted at the Last Supper and consummated on the Cross. Thus, we see then that every time we receive Communion (as long as we’re in a state of grace and properly disposed) we are in a very real way countering that act of our first parents. In the Eucharist we receive from God Himself the food we need, food once again from the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve stood proudly and reached for what didn’t belong to them, in Communion we kneel in humility begging our food from God. That’s why the Catholic Church, from her very beginning has always taken great care to safeguard the Eucharist and to make sure that the way we receive is both reverent and humble. That’s not to say that without a rail one can’t receive reverently; rather, receiving from a rail provides an additional level of intentionality, another bodily posture that expresses the great mystery into which we’re about to enter.

Traditionally altar rails are part of our Catholic heritage and serve a dual purpose of distinguishing the sanctuary apart from the nave (where the congregation sits) and, providing an incarnate expression of the theological concept of receiving everything we need from God. Why the distinction? This comes from what we know about temple worship in ancient Judaism. The temple was composed of many porticos and courtyards where progressively fewer and fewer people were present (i.e. children in one courtyard, women in one, men in another, priests in another, the high priest(s) in another one) as one drew closer and closer to the Holy of Holies wherein was contained the Ark of the Covenant, itself containing the tablets of the 10 Commandments and Manna from the wanderings in the desert. This was done not out of discriminatory or shameful reasons, but was a physical, architectural, and ritualistic way of showing the sanctity of the inner chambers of the temple and the sovereignty of God. For them, and for us, God is both immanent and transcendent, visible and invisible.

We set things apart in order to denote their purpose. For example, our church building is set apart from our office building. The two should look different as a church building is the place where heaven and earth unite. Within the church building too, as we draw closer to the Holy of Holies (the Tabernacle) we set the sanctuary apart from the rest of the building. This is an additional purpose of the altar rail and it adds to the symbolism (see above) of coming before the Lord to receive all that we need.

Logistically, when receiving Communion, you may stand or kneel, and you may receive on the hand or on the tongue, both options are permitted by the Church. Second, fill in the entire rail when queuing to receive. We’ve found that after several weeks of observations the rail is not adding any additional time during the distribution of Communion. In fact, in many cases Communion goes more quickly!

Finally, I want to share some interesting facts about the marble in our sanctuary: it comes from Italy, specifically, the Carrara region which is famous for its marble quarries and is the same region which quarried the marble used by Michelangelo. This same type of marble we have here has also been used in famous churches in Rome such as the Pantheon (now the church of All Saints) and St. Peter’s Basilica!