At Pray The Mass Fr Evan Harkins has a reflection on altar rails. Per force, he digs into what a “sanctuary” is.
Here is an excerpt with my emphases:
Practically, the rail is a help to people, both physically and spiritually. The use of rail and the way Holy Communion is distributed with it sets a solemn pace for the reception of Holy Communion. On the part of the priest, more of his time is spent actually distributing the Blessed Sacrament and less time waiting. On the part of the person receiving, the hurried tone is removed; there is a great opportunity for quiet and prayer both a few moments before and after receiving our Lord. The rail also is a help to people in kneeling and standing back up.
On the psychological level, we all have a desire, built into us by God, to offer Him our love and worship, but all of our efforts will be imperfect. This is a truth we cannot escape. If we deny our short-comings and wrong-doings on our conscious level, we will feel it and suffer on a more subconscious level. Because we know that the ‘sanctuary‘ exists — we know that there is a realm that we are unworthy and unable to enter on our own. We know that our knowledge and power are limited. God, of course, knows this too and created a solution. God sent His Son — His Christ — as the perfect high priest, who in turn instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which He allows and commands men to enter His sanctuary and offer His perfect sacrifice, so that we, the entire Church, may join our imperfect sacrifices to His. Having a sanctuary that is marked off by an altar rail is not a way of keeping people out of where they have a right to go, but it is more than anything a visible reminder to us of the reality of our situation — we need God to do what we cannot. Our worship of God is not something that we get together and decide to do; it is something that God enables us to do. We cannot worship perfectly, so Christ enables us to join in His perfect act of worship.
A lacuna is the lack of the term, presbyterium, the place marked out for the priest(s), but he definitely gets at the essence of that point in his piece.
A note about Communion rails and definition of the liturgical space of a church.
First, a church is a sacred place, made sacred by consecration. The whole church is sacred. Within the holy space, there is a “holy of holies”, just as there was in the ancient Temple.
From another point of view, it is useful to consider what St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) explained concerning Christ speaking in every word of the Psalms. For Augustine, sometime Christ speaks with His voice as Head of the Body which is the Church, sometimes He speaks as the Body. At times He speaks as Christus Totus, the Body with the Head, together.
The true Actor of the sacred action of Holy Mass is Jesus Christ the High Priest, who -through us His members, having different roles – raises words and deeds to the Father. Sometimes He acts and speaks in the person of the alter Christus the priest (Head), sometimes in the words and actions of the congregation (Body), sometimes when the priest and people act and speak together (Christus totus). Christ makes our hands and voices His own in the sacred action, but He is the actor and speaker.
The older, Extraordinary Form of Mass may demonstrate more clearly how the priest is the head of the liturgical body and can speak alone for the whole. On the other hand, perhaps the Ordinary Form shows more clearly the three-fold dynamic of Head, Body, and Christus Totus.
The church building itself should manifest this three-fold distinction.
The sanctuary, at the head of the floor plan, is the place where Christ the Head of the Body speaks and acts, the nave is the place of the congregation, the Body. A communion rail is not only practical. It defines the holy of holies. Some might claim that the Communion rail then becomes a barrier for the laity in the congregation to keep from away from the holy of holies. I don’t see it that way at all. That rail helps to point out that, in the church building’s layout, the congregation has its own proper character and dignity that must not be compromised or violated by “invasion”, so to speak, by the priest – except in those defined moments such as the Asperges or Vidi aquam we have now in Easter season.
The lack of a clear delineation of space blurs all our roles.
If the priest and people are invading each others space and roles, then proper worship is crippled. Lay people receive mixed signals which erode their identity and the priest devolves into a mere “presider”.
The congregation has its own important role and this is defined in the building. Dragging lay people into the sanctuary is a clericalism of the very worst sort. It signals to lay people that they have to be given the duties and place that pertain to the priest in order to elevate their status. “You aren’t good enough unless you are permitted – by me – to do what I can do.” I hate that clericalist attitude.
Kneeling at the Communion rail is not only a sign of reverence in the Real Presence before reception of Communion, but – for that close encounter of priest (head) and congregation (body) – is a reverent acknowledgement of the Christus totus in action in the sacred mysteries.
This is a useful way to understand in a healthy way something more about the outward expression of “active participation” during Holy Mass, and the meaning of altar rails and sanctuaries.
This is yet another reason why Summorum Pontificum is so important. We need its gravitational pull. We need what the older form of Mass offers – and all that goes with it – to revitalize our Catholic identity which flows first and foremost from our baptism and liturgical worship.
More altar rails! Define our sanctuaries!
Important for promotion of the New Evangelization? I think so.
WDTPRS kudos to Fr. Harkins for writing on the topic. Visit their blog.