The Underground Rail

During the past few weeks, there’s been quite a few blog posts railing (pun intended, you’ll see) against the way Roman Catholics receive Holy Communion in the past 50 years. Complaints have ranged from the current mode as being too factory-like, too restrictive, too forceful, and even too formal. Calls were made to make it all more spontaneous, covert, and unobtrusive. You can see what I’m talking about here and here.

Well, I was at my Holy Hour today, and reflected on that perspective. There were good points to be made, but I felt the overall argument was against the overstepping ushers – not necessarily the way we receive Communion.

But then it got deep.

I gazed at our Lord in the monstrance, and He reminded me how I felt less than 24 hours earlier, when I was at a Low Tridentine Mass in a beautiful, yet cold, dim, downtown church (St. Joseph’s of Detroit). It was time for Holy Communion, and we made our way to the communion rail (aka: altar rail. Click here for more about the different parts of a Catholic church building.). I knelt at the rail that divided the nave from the sanctuary, that kept us at a distance from the high altar, that we waited at as the priest approached us and spoon fed us God. I remember feeling strange kneeling beside a man I didn’t know, among strangers who I’ve never seen.

[Notice the Altar Rail along the bottom of the photo.]

[Notice the Altar Rail along the bottom of the photo.]

BirdFeedingThen I realized the beauty – the intimacy. At a communion rail, I am there waiting long enough to gain a sense of angst, to wander in the wonder, to reflect, pray, and be childlike. At a communion rail, we get to wait, to anticipate, to be near so beautiful a sanctuary. The rail serves partly as a limit, a boundary, to keep us in check, to remind us that we are not holy enough, not ready enough, never good enough! The priest – who is in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) – must bring Jesus to us. Our Blessed Lord must come down to us, must stoop down to us as we kneel in wait before Him, and He must feed us like we are his lost and hungry flock, like we are starving little hatchlings still in the nest. He must come to us, because we as mortal man can never lift ourselves to Him. He first loved us, as any parent must first love their child before any of us can ever return love.

[The priest prays for every communicant, one by one as he/she receives communion: “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto everlasting life. Amen.”

And when we are knelt, we are always lower than anyone who is standing. The communion rail encourages us to kneel before Beauty, to stare up with awe at the most gorgeous part of the church: the altar, the tabernacle, the frescoes and stained windows, the statues and the view. So, we are lower than the Lord, and He comes down to our level, and we gaze up at Him as He gives us Himself.

Kneeling also renders us vulnerable to He who is standing. Jesus reaches down to us, gives to us, then lifts us from our humility and vulnerability into intimacy, into His glory and dignity. Then there’s kneeling beside and among strangers during Communion, and when we receive the Lord with them, we become siblings all of us. We shared God together. We become spiritually intimate.

Outside of the Extraordinary Mass, I only ever see people receive Communion knelt at their weddings. The new couple, before the altar, knelt together, intimate as they share God. If this is such a powerful experience for the newlyweds, then no wonder it was the norm for centuries! For millennia even!

Then came the communion line we know of today… sometimes feeling more like a conveyor belt as we shuffle up to receive a handout. We take, then go – like a dine-and-dash, like a carry-out. It’s too quick, too efficiency-oriented, too much like a factory. That’s where I agree with the detractors of “orderly” Communion. But I cannot agree when they seem to call for a random mad-dash, bad-timing-prone, childish and Black-Friday-esque Communion experience (yes, someone even said it should have the fervor of Black Friday chaos. Mind them, people are trampled to death on that shopping day…). The rail calls us to be childlike, but the craziness asked for calls us to be childish!

Yet despite those and other points that I disagree with, I would say the railers are actually deeply longing for the rail of old, the time tested communion rail of the Vetus Ordo Mass, the largely forgotten and neglected and unjustly detracted and overlooked and forced underground communion rail. Because I realized how beautiful and intimate Holy Communion is… and I did not realize it in some queue, but at the rail! among and beside my siblings! humbled before God.

And you can see more of what I’m sharing here.

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