The Gospel in the Altar Rail

The altar rail separates the congregation from the Sanctuary, symbolising our sin, separating us from Heaven and from God. The holy place is on that side, and we’re stuck on this side, able to look but not enter.

But the altar rail also stands for Christ Himself, who for our sake became sin. As the altar rail stands in the middle, as both sanctuary and nave, and the meeting point between them, so Christ, in becoming our sin, has made it the meeting point of heaven and earth.

And it’s at this meeting point that we come, right to the threshold of Heaven, to kneel down, receive God Himself into us, and take Him out into the world.

God bless you!


  1. Dear Ignatius,
    Allow me to say there is another way of looking at the altar rails and receiving Communion.

    When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, they were all sitting, or probably reclining at table. Not kneeling.

    The risen Jesus was able to pass through doors and walls to reach his sinful, frightened disciples. He told Thomas (John 20:27) to reach out his hand and touch his wounds. My experience of wounds suggests that it probably hurt to have Thomas do that. After all, Jesus still had a human body which could feel hunger and affection; surely it felt pain too?

    Your photo is of people receiving Communion on the tongue: you will perceive that I favour putting out the hand, and why.

    Until 50 years ago, roughly, women were not allowed on the sanctuary; except for ladies like my grandmother who did the cleaning. The rails were a barrier, when Jesus has torn the veil of the temple separating God’s presence from his people, and he come through to where the sinners are. The rails represent for me the clericalism that Pope Francis is determined to challenge.

    Of course we take the Lord into the world, but surely it is the altar, not the rails, that is the focus of that feeding and sending out.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Will,

      I get what you mean. For me, the rails are both our separation from God (like the temple veil) and the overcoming of that separation (them being torn), but if for you and others they’re just the separation (and I think it’s probably clericalism that caused that perception), then they aren’t helping.

      Wrt kneeling/standing and receiving on the tongue/hand, I think that it’s a similar case, where God’s extraordinary closeness is overcoming that distance between us and Him. It’s the drama and tension of the Incarnation. If we receive kneeling and/or on the tongue, this expression of reverence is being met by the Divine irreverence of eating and drinking God Himself. If we receive standing and/or in the hand, we are already standing ready in the incredible intimacy of God. Standing/hand expresses His closeness, and kneeling/tongue express how extraordinary this is.

      I’d always assumed His risen body didn’t have hunger or pain, but now that I think about, I think you’re right. A transfigured, divine, pain and hunger, I imagine.

      The altar is certainly the centre and focus and source. But the rails remind me that God is becoming and overcoming sin, and breaking into our world. Of course, if the rails aren’t there, God’s still there becoming and overcoming that gap. The altar is where the priest offers the sacrifice to God, and the rails (whether physically there or not) are where God gives it to us.

      God bless 🙂


    2. I agree with much of your assessment; however, I do believe that our more traditional brethren do have a point when it comes to receiving communion in the hand and walking in line that many do so without any reverence. Perhaps, this is mostly due to poor Catechesis. However, it also appears, that those who wish such practices brought back advocate for a greater distinction between clerics and the laity, as you mentioned and at times falls into a semi-Gnosticism of special knowledge. I think it wise for Vatican II and the Catechism to speak of the role of all the baptized the role of the universal/common priesthood. Naturally, again, I believe the issue is poor Catechesis and as one who attempts to organize such meetings for adults with little to no turnout maybe this should be better addressed in the Homilies so all can hear it.


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