Sunday, November 27, 2011

why & how I respect the altar rail

The altar rail is used by many good Lutherans as a place on which to rest their hands and arms, a crutch to help them as they kneel down, a stable surface on which to lean, and in the case of children it is sometimes used as a device on which to hang their arms like a monkey. Every case is different; it does no good to stereotype or judge. The way you choose to conduct yourself, and allow your children to conduct themselves, at the altar is your decision. Seriously. It's no skin off my nose. What I would like to do, however, is share with you my own thinking on the altar rail, and why it is that I behave the way I do around it.

The altar rail is not really meant to be a handy surface for our hands or elbows.  Rather, it is a sacred object meant for sacred use.  It is an extension of the altar itself. Tradition would have us treat it as we would the altar because liturgically speaking, it is, in fact, an extension of it.  In this sense one may say that he has received communion at the altar.  When we learn to view the altar rail as an extension of the altar we begin to understand why, in former ages, the altar rail would be dressed, or we might say vested, with a special linen reserved for this purpose.  It is worth reminding ourselves also that the altar, and therefore also the altar rail, is a symbol of Christ Himself, our Sacrifice for sin.  Seeing the altar rail this way is reason enough to approach it with reverence, and refrain from touching it as much as possible.

But there is another reason, and it is related to the other reason why the altar rail was traditionally covered with a linen.  It was a way of helping to catch any particle of the Host or drop of the Precious Blood of Christ which may happen to fall in the course of the Communion. This linen is called the communion cloth, or the houseling cloth, and there is a rich history of its careful and reverent use in Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal churches. Whether your church still uses this cloth, or gave it up decades ago, or the practice was never known in your parts, this tradition points us toward another reason for the traditional reverence with which the Christian approaches and behaves around the altar rail, namely, so as not to get in the way of its function of catching and holding particles of the Blessed Sacrament until the ministers of the Eucharist can tend to them.  Perhaps you are thinking: surely it is quite rare that a particle of the sacred Host would fall onto the altar rail.  Perhaps you are even a pastor and are thinking: I have never seen this happen.  I am not here to dream up far fetched scenarios, and draw out theologies around them.  My point is that if a particle of the Host were to fall, or if a drop of the Precious Blood were to fall, it would be better for it to fall unto the altar rail than onto your sleeve, or your little nephew's neck. 

Both reverence for the altar rail as an extension of the altar and the sense of awe and care with which the Christian conducts himself around the Sacred Species impel me to behave a certain way at the altar rail.  In particular, I have trained myself to kneel down at the rail without using the rail as an aid.  I make sure that I kneel with good posture, with my hands held before me, palm to palm, fingers extended, not touching the rail.  And after I have received Holy Communion and have been dismissed, I rise, again, without touching the rail, turn, and return to my place.  I am not sure I have touched an altar rail in years, except in caring for the church as deacon at my former congregation.

Now clearly the aged and those with weak knees, etc., will have much more difficulty doing likewise.  I do think that it would be good if we fostered this sort of reverence once again for the altar rail, and assisted those who might want to kneel but may need help in doing so.

I tend to act as though that rail were not even there.  Now it is worth noting, however, that the rail also serves a very visual purpose.  Namely, it helps remind us that there is a holy and sacred space at the altar.  This is why we call it the sanctuary.  The rail sort of marks this space.  Not just anyone may approach the altar, and manhandle the Sacrament, all in the name of Christian freedom.  That's not how the holy things, the mysteries of God are given good stewardship.  Frankly, the rail also reminds us that the Holy Communion is closed to those outside of Christ's fellowship.  There is, in other words, a boundary around the altar, so to speak.  And those of us who are called to this Most Holy Sacrament are in holy communion with the sacramental Body of Christ, yet also with the ecclesial, or mystical Body of Christ (not merely with the number of those we see there on Sunday morning).  And in some churches the rail is actually curved, which helps to remind us that the fellowship of the altar extends all the way around that altar, so to speak; that is, it encompasses the goodly fellowship of the saints whom we see only with the eyes of faith.

Let all these considerations be for you food for thought as you approach the altar next Lord's Day.


BrotherBoris said...

What a wonderful post! I've been a fan of your blog for quite a while, but I don't think I've ever posted a comment.

As late as the 1980's, I attended an LCMS church in North Carolina that still put out the houseling cloth on the altar rail for Holy Communion. Sadly, today, the old church was demolished and replaced by a modernist "church barn" that has no altar rail at all. Sigh. Sicut erat!

I can deeply relate to what you say about reverence for the Eucharist, esp. regarding Eucharistic accidents. How we handle accidents shows what we really believe about the Eucharist.
I was a Lutheran for 17 years. About 15 years ago, I left Lutheranism and became Russian Orthodox. In that time I have witnessed at least three Eucharistic accidents in the Orthodox Church, and I like how they were handled.

Accident 1: An elderly priest walking out with the chalice in hand to commune the people slips as he descends the chancel steps. Some of the Blessed Sacrament spills on the floor. Everything stopped. The elderly priest returned the Chalice to the altar. Deacon Charles knelt on the stone floor and licked up the Precious Blood. Then altar boys brought him towels and some holy water. The floor was washed three times where the spilled occurred. Everything was blotted up, and then a fresh dry towel was placed over the spot where the accident occured, so that no one would step on that spot until everything was complete dry. The towel was removed after the liturgy.

Accident 2: During the Communion of the people, Father missed someone's mouth with the communion spoon. The Holy Eucharist landed on the carpet. Everything stopped. The altar boys formed a "human fence" around the accident. Father returned the chalice to the altar. Father got down on his knees and consumed the Precious Body that had fallen to the floor. However, this church has carpet. The carpet was soaked with the precious Blood. Father got a purificator and blotted up as much as he could. Then he had the altar boys bring him a small table, which was placed over the spot, so that no one would walk on it. Father then communed the rest of the people and finished the Liturgy. The spot was allowed to dry completely over a couple days. After it had dried out, Father had about a 6 inch square of the carpet cut out of the floor and removed. He then burned it, and returned the ashes to the earth.

Accident 3: A mother with a toddler goes up for Communion. As the mother is holding the toddler to receive the Eucharist, the toddler's foot reflexively kicked the Chalice, causing the Precious Blood to be spilled on the toddler's clothing. Father finished communing the toddler, then he spoke this clearly to the mother and I was close enough to hear it: You must bring me the Child's clothes immediately after the Liturgy. They have come in contact with the Holy Mysteries and will have to be destroyed.

Needless to say, I am impressed by the way the Orthodox Church handles Eucharistic accidents. We make it very clear what we believe about the Eucharist.

P.S. This is one of my favorite blogs!

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Dear Brother Boris:
Thanks for your comments. In this post I made mention of the traditional reverent practices of the Lutheran, RC, & Episcoplaian churches, but of course I ought to mention that of the Orthodox tradition as well. I do not have a lot of experience with that tradition (despite what seminary bureaucrats like to think), so I cannot comment well on it, and I appreciate your anecdotal information. It reminds me of the attitude & practice of Martin Luther. Thanks again.