The traditional Communion rail has functional and sacramental purposes. It distinguishes the sanctuary from the nave and the priest from the people. The architectural logic of the Communion rail symbolizes the sacred (“set apart”) and ministerial priesthood with the priest offering Mass as a mediator in Christ the Head. The priest, as male, images Jesus as the Divine Bridegroom in union with His beloved Church. And he feeds the Bride of Christ at the Communion rail, from the “table of the Lord.” Bride and Bridegroom are distinct but never divorced.
The Communion rail accentuates the sanctuary as the “Holy of Holies” hearkening back to Jewish worship. The Mosaic Law dictates the preparations of an Old Testament priest – cleanliness, vestments, offerings – for entry into the “Holy of Holies.” (Lev. 16:2-5) Saint Luke illustrates the role of the priest as God’s sacred mediator: Zechariah worships in the temple burning incense as the people support him in prayer. (Luke 1:8-11)
The Sacrifice of Christ inaugurates the New and Everlasting Covenant and every Mass re-presents His Cross and Resurrection. Even though the Temple curtain was torn in two when Jesus gave up His spirit (Mt. 27:51), the distinction between priest and people (and sanctuary and nave) still remains. But a closer complementarity now exists in the age of the Church.
The Mass fulfills and replaces Jewish worship in continuity with all of the Scriptures. Christ is not a worldly revolutionary: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) The overarching meaning of fulfillment in the Sacred Liturgy is unity of faith and the confidence that comes with stability and the constant reliability of God’s revelation.
Indeed, over centuries, the shape of the Mass developed and codified identifiable parallels to Old Testament worship and even anticipated order in heaven. The heavenly Jerusalem isn’t a mob scene, but arranged in order and distinction: “cosmos” not “chaos”:
The Liturgy of the Word replaces the worship of the synagogue.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist fulfills – and replaces – the Temple sacrifices.
The tabernacle replaces the holy ark of the synagogue containing the sacred Torah scrolls.
The Word made Flesh in the Eucharist fulfills the word of God in Scriptures.
The altar of sacrifice becomes at once the sacrificial altar of the Lamb of God as well as a sign of the Body of Christ Himself.
And the Communion rail establishes the boundaries of worship, defining the Holy of Holies of the sanctuary.
Paradoxically and beautifully, the Communion rail also invites the people to confidently step up to the very edge of the Holy of Holies in reverence. The Communion rail accentuates the altar as the locus of sacrifice where “the heart [of the just] is said to be the altar of God.” (Gregory the Great) The faithful cannot present their sacrificial gifts to the Father except through the hands of the priest. But neither can the priest place the sacrifices on the altar unless the faithful freely give them. Priest and people, head and body, sanctuary and nave: all complementing the other in the one worshiping Church.
Faith formation depends on essential catechetical and theological training. But faith is enriched by our encounter with the externals of the liturgy in various forms – including the sacred architecture.
When there isn’t a Communion rail, the people approach the Communion station and, after receiving Communion, hurriedly depart. A panoramic devotional view of a beautiful sanctuary, like the splendor of decorations adorning a wedding feast, is thus unlikely. The reception of Communion is individualistic, not communal. The priest stands still distributing the Hosts; the people hustle to and fro.
Restoring the Communion rail to its rightful place in churches has important theological and phenomenological implications. A priest senses the Communion rail and feels he is set apart from the assembly, even as he engages the faithful in prayer. He is more aware of his role as a mediator in Christ in prayer and worship. His role as a spiritual father becomes clear as he emerges from the Holy of Holies to distribute Communion.
Indeed, there is a remarkable etymological relationship between pastor and panis (bread) – both from pa – “to feed.” Thus, distributing Communion is an essential part of the priesthood. And this explains why we should always consider as “extraordinary” the laity assisting with the distribution of Holy Communion (preferably at a station just outside the sanctuary).
At Communion time, the people approach the sanctuary to receive. As they kneel, there is a brief time to contemplate the artistry of the altar, the tabernacle, the Crucifix, and the entire sanctuary. They pause, even if only for a few seconds, as the priest efficiently distributes the Hosts. The priest is moving and working hard in his fatherly task. Shoulder to shoulder, the faithful receive from the table of the Lord as a family. There is no rush to depart. All of this reverses the individualistic dynamic of receiving while standing in a Communion line.
The Communion rail not only links the priest and faithful to Jewish worship, but it is also a beautiful architectural symbol that accentuates the harmonious and complementary relationship between priest and people, between Christ and His Church.
The Mass, after all, is a foretaste of heavenly glory and the communion of the saints:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. (Rev. 21:1-4)