Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Over the years I have heard many theological explanations of the purpose of the altar rail. The main one is that it is a remnant of when a screen divided the sanctuary and the priest’s offering of Holy Mass from the rest of the people who sat in the main body of the church. He offers the Mass on the behalf of the people, acting as an intermediary between heaven and earth. When we receive Communion at the altar rail on the edge of the sanctuary, the priest brings Heaven to us on Earth, and it is a beautiful, humbling experience to kneel, wait, and receive Our Lord.
I was recently given another theological explanation of the action of receiving Holy Communion at the altar rail while studying the New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism with my daughter. And it blew my mind for about a week. We were in Lesson 28 on Holy Communion, directly following the lesson on the Sacrifice of the Mass, when I paused at this sentence: “At Holy Communion, when we go up to the Banquet Table (the altar rail), Our Lord comes to us.” I had always thought of the Banquet Table as the main altar where the priest makes present Christ’s sacrifice. It had never occurred to me that the altar rail was something more than a divider from the sanctuary, but that it is actually an extension of the altar—the people’s altar. It is the place where we bring our own sacrifices as we wait to be united in communion with Our Lord and with each other, the Church.
The altar is the place of sacrifice in the Church, and as Christians we are all called to participate in that sacrifice. When we bring our personal offerings to God in the Mass, we are bringing them to the suffering Christ on the cross.
The Council of Trent taught this:
In this divine sacrifice that is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. [...] For, the victim is one and the same; the same now offers himself through the ministry of priests who then offered himself on the Cross; only the manner of offering is different. (DS 1743, Council of Trent, Session 22, Ch. 2)
Christ offers himself through the priest, and we are the very witnesses of this sacrifice when we assist at the Sacrifice of the Mass. And Christ desires us to bring ourselves closer to him and to actively participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass by making an interior offering of our acts of reparation, our daily struggles, and our prayers for others. We can make our prayers at the Offertory and during the Eucharistic prayer, but also when we present ourselves for Communion. Therefore, going up to the altar rail and receiving our sacrificed Lord at the people’s altar is the appropriate and beautiful consummation of our own individual offerings united with that of Christ on the Cross.
Trent teaches us that Christ takes our offerings and our sorrow for our sins and in return gives us mercy and grace:
Therefore, the holy council teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory, so that, if we draw near to God with an upright heart and true faith, with fear and reverence, with sorrow and repentance, through it “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” [Heb 4:16] (DS 1743, Council of Trent, Session 22, Ch. 2)
The more reverently we approach his presence in the Sacrament, the more fully we participate through the exterior act of kneeling before the extension of the altar and the interior act of offering ourselves to him, the greater the graces we receive will be.
But that is not all. In Colossians St. Paul talks about his own sacrifices in this way:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Col 1:24)
Our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass, our own offerings are important for the salvation of our fellow Christians. We are called to join our sufferings with Christ’s, to complete the sacrifice. The altar rail is a beautiful symbol of this offering. I have a friend who goes up to and kisses the altar rail whenever he is in a church with one. He makes his offering at the people’s altar.
The use of the altar rail is coming back; priests are putting back ones that were taken down, parishes are using ones still intact at some Masses, and some churches never stopped using the altar rail. The truth about it is that the altar rail is meant to be an extension of the altar of sacrifice for the laity to kneel before, to consummate the sacrifice. We cannot receive at the main altar as priests do, but we can receive at the altar of the laity, the altar rail. It helps us to remember that Mass is a sacrifice, that Christ’s one sacrifice is made present at every single Mass. The altar rail is a reminder for us that we can unite all of our sufferings, joys, and sacrifices with Christ for the sake of the Church and the whole world. And if it is our altar, maybe we should be asking to have it back.
We should, therefore, be quite wrong were we to separate such acts of piety as our communions and our adoration from the act of the sacrifice; let us accustom ourselves to keep this connection practically in mind by communicating with the priest during holy Mass, and by considering our Lord present in the tabernacle as the saving Victim. (Dom Gasper Lefebvre, O.S.B., Saint Andrew Daily Missal, Liturgical Worship)