All Things New
Communion Rails: Restoring a Sense of the Sacred
Okay. I've changed my mind. It's time to bring back the altar rail.
Hey, I'm as surprised as anyone else that I feel this way.
Two years ago, I rhapsodized on the Feast of Corpus Christi on the theology behind standing to receive communion, and defended it. And why not? I've received that way for most of my adult life; I even remember the Latin church's experiment with intinction back in the '70s. Standing and in-the-hand always seemed to me sensible, practical and—with proper catechesis—appropriate.
But now, after several years of standing on the other side of the ciborium—first as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, now as a deacon—and watching what goes on, I've had about enough.
I've watched a mother receive communion, her toddler in tow, then take it back to the pew and share it with him like a cookie.
At least four or five times a year, I have to stop someone who just takes the host and wanders away with it and ask them to consume it on the spot.
Once or twice a month I encounter the droppers. Many are well-intentioned folks who somewhere, somehow drop the host or it slides out of their hands and Jesus tumbles to the floor.
A couple times a year I get the take-out crowd. They receive the host properly, and then pull out a hanky and ask if they can take another one home to a sick relative.
Beyond that, I'm reminded week after week that people have no uniform way to receive in the hand. There's the reverent "hands-as-throne" approach; there's the "Gimme five," one-hand-extended style; there are the notorious "body snatchers" who reach up and seize the host to pop into their mouths like an after-dinner mint; and there are the vacillating undecideds who approach with hands slightly cupped and lips parted. Where do you want it and how??
After experiencing this too often, in too many places, under a variety of circumstances, I've decided: it's got to stop. Catechesis is fruitless. We've tried. You can show people how it's done; you can instruct them; you can post reminders in the bulletin and give talks from the pulpit. It does no good. Again and again, there is a sizable minority of the faithful who are just clueless—or, worse, indifferent.
The fact is, we fumbling humans need external reminders—whether smells and bells, or postures and gestures—to reinforce what we are doing, direct our attention, and make us get over ourselves. Receiving communion is about something above us, and beyond us. It should transcend what we normally do. But what does it say about the state of our worship and our reception of the Eucharist that it has begun to resemble a trip to the DMV?
Our modern liturgy has become too depleted of reverence and awe, of wonder and mystery. The signs and symbols that underscored the mystery—the windows of stained glass, the chants of Latin, the swirls of incense at the altar—vanished and were replaced by . . . what? Fifty shades of beige? Increasingly churches now resemble warehouses, and the Body of Christ is just one more commodity we stockpile and give out.
Can kneeling to receive on the tongue help alleviate some of this? Well, it can't hurt. And for this reason: to step up to a communion rail, and kneel, and receive on the tongue, is an act of utter and unabashed humility. In that posture to receive the Body of Christ, you become less so that you can then become more. It requires a submission of will and clear knowledge of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is about to happen to you.
Frankly, we should not only be humbled, but intimidated enough to ask ourselves if we are really spiritually ready to partake of the sacrament. Kneeling means you can't just go up and receive without knowing how it's properly done. It demands not only a sense of focus and purpose, but also something else, something that has eluded our worship for two generations.
It demands a sense of the sacred. It challenges us to kneel before wonder, and bow before grace. It insists that we not only fully understand what is happening, but that we fully appreciate the breathtaking generosity behind it. It asks us to be mindful of what "Eucharist" really means: thanksgiving.
I don't see that much today. It's gone. We need to reclaim it. Pope Benedict XVI seems to agree. He has decided he will only give communion at papal Masses to those who kneel and receive on the tongue. He was gently making a liturgical point. Are we paying attention?
After what I've seen, I agree with him. We need to get off our feet, and on our knees.
Bring back the communion rail. It's time.
Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic Deacon serving the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, and an award-winning journalist. He blogs at The Deacon's Bench.