The Altar or Communion Rail (Part I of III)

02-16-2020Letter from the PastorFr. Don Kline, V.F.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In his book, "Nothing Superfluous" Fr. James W. Jackson, FSSP, takes a deep dive into everything that has to do with the Holy Mass. This book is for those who want to know the meaning, depth, and beauty of Sacred Liturgy. If you ever wondered why a church building has stained glass windows, high ceilings, or a tabernacle, Fr. Jackson does a great job of answering these questions and many more. I highly recommend this book.

For the next few issues of my pastor's notes, I want to focus on the function and purpose of a Communion rail. As you know, our beautiful church was built with a traditional Communion rail. The Communion rail (also called the altar rail) separates the sanctuary area from the rest of the church area. This rail is called the Communion rail because this is the place where faithful are able to kneel or stand while receiving Holy Communion.

The rail may be made of carved wood, metal, marble, or other noble material. It usually measures about two or three feet high, and the upper part of the rail is usually six to nine inches wide. The rail may be covered with a clean white cloth which may be placed over the rail before those who receive Holy Communion come forward. This cloth is usually made of fine linen, because its purpose is to act like a corporal to receive the particles of the host which may fall when a person is receiving Holy Communion. Since we make use of the paten, which is usually held by the Altar server, the use of a white cloth is not absolutely necessary.

In his column, The Communion Rail and Complementarity, Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky suggests that the traditional Communion rail has both practical and spiritual purposes.  Practically speaking, the rail distinguishes the
sanctuary, (the place for the altar, ambo, tabernacle, priest, deacon, altar servers, and lectors) from the nave (the main body of the church). There is also a theological aspect since the Communion rail distinguishes the sanctuary and ministerial priesthood with the priest offering Mass as a mediator in Christ the Head. 

The Communion rail also reminds us that the sanctuary is the "Holy of Holies". This concept of the "Holy of
Holies" is taken from ancient Jewish worship.  According to the Mosaic Law, there are guidelines and parameters for how a priest is to worship God. In the book of Leviticus (Lev. 16:2-5), things like sacred linens, personal hygiene, and holy offerings are described as part of a priest's presence in the "Holy of Holies."  St. Luke's gospel also refers to the role of the priest as God's "sacred mediator." Zechariah worships, according to "the practice of the priestly service," in the temple while burning incense as the people support him in prayer.  (Luke 1:8-11) Sound familiar?

To be continued...