here was a time in the seminary (times, they have a-changed) when the altar was in the center of the nave on an oriental rug,
which constituted the sanctuary, with chairs placed around it for whomever was attending. One day a seminarian was giving the homily. I don’t remember the exact context of the message but he asked the question if everything is made by God, is one place holier than any another? Standing on the Oriental rug he asked, “Am in a holier place now than,” and he stepped off of the rug, “now?”
The situation was much the same way in my first assignment. The daily chapel was a room behind the main church. The place where the altar, tabernacle, ambo, and celebrant’s chair sat would have been a hallway passage between the two doors that let into the chapel with pews fanning back from there. In fact, it was used as a hallway. It had to be. It was the only way to get to the pews or pass from one side of the church to the other without walking across the main sanctuary. In essence there was even less of a distinction between sanctuary and nave here than in the seminary.
So is – or should – the sanctuary area be any more holy than any other part of the church building? What does holy mean? Holy means set apart for the use of the kingdom. Is not the whole church holy – set apart for use to further the kingdom of God? Of course it is. A whole church is consecrated, not just the sanctuary area. The whole building needs to be treated with a certain amount of reverence. This is not just another building.
But further, the sanctuary is not just another space in the holy space. Here is where the most important thing on earth takes place. Here the Word of God is proclaimed; here Jesus is made present Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. The altar is not just another table on which something grand takes place. Therefore the altar should never be used for anything unconnected to the liturgy. It is not a convenient place to set your scissors as you work on flowers, it is not place to set your papers or to lean against.
This does not make God happier or more holy. This practice is for our benefit. It reminds us not to become too complacent, too used to the miraculous and mystery in our midst. It says to us that something far too important happens here to be taken lightly. Set your scissors somewhere – anywhere else but here.
By extension also the sanctuary. This is not just another space. It is not even just another holy space within a holy space. There is something
elevated here. We are to treat this space distinctly different than all other spaces. The general Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the sanctuary should be marked off from the body of the church by elevation or distinct design or architectural appointments. As one wanders around the church, it should be impossible to accidently find yourself here. In a terrible analogy it is like not walking on someone’s grave. Nobody is hurt by it. Not you, not the person who died, and not God. But not doing so reminds us of the dignity of the person buried there, of the reverence we should have for death, for the sensibilities of those who love the person, and remind us of our own mortality.
So we come to the altar rail which has had a fall from popularity that rivals that of Tiger Woods. Recently it was suggested by a parishioner that it be removed from the parish building. Besides making a terrible mar in the architecture would it harm anything to remove it? No. God wouldn’t be angry. Even the most orthodox liturgist would not think it a crime against the Church since the sanctuary would still meet the requirements for being distinctly set apart. But I think we would lose something.
One of the reasons people do not like altar rails is that it makes them feel distant from the altar. As if there is some barrier between them and the altar. Well – let’s be honest – there is. But if having an altar in a hallway is one extreme is having an altar rail the other?
One argument that I make over and over again is that symbols that were redefined in the 60s and 70s are being redefined once again. The things that were fought against represented by many symbols of the Church no longer exist and younger persons cannot connect them with what others see
as oppressive signs of a bygone Church structure. Arguments to the contrary simply fail to move them and when we spend a lot of time arguing about them young people (here I mean approximately 45 and under) simply become disinterested, wonder what all the fuss is about, and, tragically, lose interest.
So we come to the altar rail. Quite frankly I think most people simply don’t register them. It is a bit of a non-issue. But looking back at being in church buildings with altar rails and not having grown up with what is now called the extraordinary form I find they have played a curiously opposite role in my life than that of which they are accused.
Far from making me think that I am somehow excluded or unworthy to approach the sanctuary, I find that they have always drawn me to the sanctuary. Stopping in a church on a visit I would always find myself kneeling at such a spot, not only getting one of the closest vantage points for looking at a beautiful sanctuary but also then (while I am kneeling) being drawn to prayer. As some people see them as off putting, they can also be an invitation.
Now, you certainly do not have to agree with my analysis. Except for the call for the sanctuary to be set apart from the rest of the church, everything contained herein is strictly my opinion (brilliant and humble, but just my opinion) and you will find scores of much more educated and professional persons who vehemently disagree. And that’s why it is a big Church. But be careful about completely ruling them out at least in such things as already exist as if it is a foregone conclusion that they should be wiped out from the face of the earth. In an age where sanctity is a dying concept it may be wise to not rail against such things.