Thursday, February 20, 2014

CreamCity: The Altar Rail: Why This Barrier Should Stay

Truncated altar rail inside Old Saint Mary Parish,
downtown Milwaukee
We live in a time in which youth are taught that barriers and walls exist to be torn down in bursts of chest thumping self-empowerment. And for the most part, this is a good thing. In this piece however, I am talking about the altar rail, an actual barrier, a wall of sorts within a church that separates, that sets apart (sacred in its Latin root means ‘set apart’). I am arguing in favor of retaining, or in many cases restoring the altar rail to its place of honor in our Milwaukee-area churches.

An altar rail is located at the entryway to the sanctuary in a Catholic church. Usually about three feet in height, the altar rail stretches the width of the church, setting apart the nave (symbolic of earth) where the faithful gather, and the sanctuary (symbolic of heaven) where the priest offers Mass and where the Blessed Sacrament resides. The altar rail symbolizes the gateway to heaven from earth below. To receive Holy Communion, the faithful kneel at this threshold to heaven in order to receive the Bread of the Angels, the very Body of Christ.

As you can see from just this cursory description, when it comes to the theology of sacred architecture, symbolism runs deep in the Catholic Church. While the entire church building is sacred, the most sacred space, the sanctum sanctorum, is undoubtedly the sanctuary. As Catholics, we certainly believe that there is a distinction between heaven, our final home, and earth, our stop along the way. So why shouldn’t the symbolic representations of that divide, that distinction, be honored in our churches?
continue at Cream City Catholic

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