Friday, January 17, 2020

The magic in the room. . .

I grew up in a parish without an altar rail.  I am not sure of the history or why there was no rail.  Rails are very common and almost ordinary in every other Lutheran parish around.  But it was not until I went to college that I really notice the rail.  Trinity Lutheran Church in Winfield, Kansas, has a circular altar rail that is hard to miss.  In fact, the acolyte had to stand on the back circle of the rail to reach the office lights on the back wall.  It was then I began to notice what I had been missing.

The altar rail is not simply utilitarian.  It means something more than just a handle on which to lean.  It marks a place or rather it is a marker between places.  On one side is the domain of God and those who serve Him.  On the other side is the domain of those who are served.  When we confuse the two, all kinds of things go bad.  I did not realize this until fairly recently.  Now I see the wisdom of it.

Despite all the folklore about the rail being used to keep livestock out of the chancel, the altar rail is the meeting place between the God who serves and the people who are served.  I well recall while serving as a Deacon at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, feeling strange that there was no rail.  There had been but a remodel under the guidance of then pastor Herb Lindemann they had removed the rail and people stood around the altar.  Since then the rail has been restored.  There is an order there that was missing before.  It is not about who is kept out but how the divine service functions.  God who serves and we who are served by Him.  It is amazing how the rail marks this Divine Service.

Roman Catholics ditched the rails like crazy after Vatican II.  Lutherans are cheap and we may have omitted them from newly built structures but we did not spend a great deal of time or money rehabbing the old structures to fit the new liturgies.  It was a wise coincidence of stinginess and liturgical wisdom.  Now some Roman Catholics are searching the corners of their buildings for the old rails to reinstall them or purchasing them from newly closed church buildings.  They have also found that the simple fact of a rail makes a difference.

There is something else.  I think that the rail may have something to do with a vibrant belief in the Real Presence and its absence may have something to do with our casual approach to the most holy presence of our Lord.  Rails remind us to kneel and kneeling reminds us that we who are being given the most precious gift of all are also unworthy of this grace.  The more casual treat the things of God and how we receive them, the more casual they become until God Himself is hardly worth our time or effort.  And if an altar rail can discourage this shrug of the shoulders before God's presence on earth, then it is one of the most valuable pieces of furniture in any chancel.


Sean said...

Personally, I think the rail serves less to divide those receiving the sacrament from those who are administering the sacrament, than it does to offer a table around which we gather, and a place where we gladly bend the knee to our Lord and Savior who is physically present with us in Holy Communion.

Pastor Harvey S. Mozolak said...

While you wrote about the railing, "its absence may have something to do with our casual approach to the most holy presence of our Lord" and that may have to do with some change in chancel arrangement in certain places... (and not saying you are) but no one could or should doubt that Fr. Herb was in any way casual about the Lord's real and holy presence. I am not sure where he would stand today in some areas of presently contested theology but his liturgical stance was certainly deep within the tradition of Christendom. Respectfully, HSM