Looking Forward to Restoration of the Communion Rail

During the Covid-19 pandemic, our congregation has altered the manner of administering Communion from the Communion rail to a line formation. While I understand and support the decision of the Pastor and Elders to do this, I am not a fan. I look forward to restoration of the Communion rail. In this article I explain why.

It took me years, but I finally learned to fasten upon Christ’s Words of Institution in Communion. The Communion rail is an aid to hearing and believing his Words. The line formation? Not so much.

I will explain my “not so much” view, but to do that, first, let’s remember about the Word and faith in Communion. The Small Catechism says:

How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?

Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”

Luther elsewhere says the Words of Institution, though brief, are a complete preaching of the Gospel.

Christ’s Word makes Communion what it is. He says, “This is my body,” so it is. He says, “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins,” so it is.

Luther hangs his hat on the very Words, each and every one. It is sound for him to do this. From eternity past, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had planned to send the Son into the world as our Savior.[1] The Spirit moved the prophets to foretell about the new covenant.[2] In the upper room, Jesus gave the New Testament to us in his blood. Christ’s words there and then were words consummating the long-expected promise. He was not speaking off-the-cuff but by eternal plan. His words were not haphazard. They were chosen words. We too may hang our hats on his very Words, each and every one.

For example, in his liturgical reform of the Mass, Luther hangs his hat on the word “testament.” He explains the use of “testament” both in the Words of Institution and in the epistle to the Hebrews. In the last couple hundred years before Luther, the church had made Communion into a sacrifice. As a sacrifice, Communion had become something the priests offer to God. But hanging on the single word “testament,” Luther teaches that Communion is a sacrament that Christ gives to the Church. The action is in the opposite direction. It is not from man to God but from God to man. The nature of the action is opposite. It is not a sacrifice but a sacrament. Luther knows this because a testament is a gift of promise that become fixed and immovable once the giver dies.[3] Christ the promisor of the gift has died and now his promise and gift are certain and permanent. This is nothing the priests or we give to God or do for God any more than a testament is anything the heir earns. This is all something God does and gives to us.[4]

Take another of Christ’s words, “remembrance.” The Reformed have misunderstood the use of this word. They use it to make the bread and wine not the true body and blood of Jesus, but only symbols representing his body and blood. Not so with Luther. Again, as Luther considers what the church had lately made of Communion, a sacrifice that the priests offer to God, the word “remembrance” refutes the error. Christ once for all made his sacrifice.[5] Communion is not any sort of re-sacrifice, continuing sacrifice, or added sacrifice. On the contrary, it is a “remembrance” of Christ’s own once-for-always sacrifice. As a remembrance, Communion is not itself a sacrifice.

In the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus gives us the same blood that he sacrificed for us to God. As David P. Scaer says,

The Lord’s Supper brings its recipients face-to-face with Christ’s death as the atonement so that sins can be forgiven. Christ’s blood given in the Lord’s Supper is first offered to God as the atonement: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:28). Christ’s blood is sacrificially shed or poured out from his body as an atonement to satisfy God’s charge against sinners. With the demands of the old covenant satisfied, God establishes a new covenant in which forgiveness is offered for the sins of those who participate in the Supper. It is the new covenant or testament (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

With his body and blood Christ is present in the church as the sacrifice to God for sin. What Christ sacrificed to God he gives as sacrament to his people. Sacrifice and sacrament are two sides of one reality.[6]

In the same way we may hang on each and every Word of Christ in his institution of his Sacrament. Take the words, “for many.” Many dear Christians have suffered doubts about their own inclusion in the grace of forgiveness. They believe Christ is Savior. They believe salvation is by his blood. They even believe Christ gives us his true blood in Communion. But their sins, the accusations of Satan, the buffeting of the world, and their conscience make them feel that, while others are being saved, it is not for them. They are not included.

But Jesus says, “for many.” Hang on these words. The Greek that has been translated “for many” means more than how “for many” sounds in English. “Many” does not mean just a goodly number of the 8 billion souls on earth. It means every soul, the whole world. “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2). As Lenski says, “John does not add this ‘but also’ as a matter of information for us regarding other people but as assuring us that, because Christ is expiation . . . ‘in regard to the whole world,’ we are included. . . . ‘The whole world’ includes all men who ever lived or will live.”[7]

If the words “for many” do not convince you, Jesus adds more words addressed to you. He aims words at you. He says, “for you.” He says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you.” In Communion, hear and believe these words.

Look how tightly wrapped Luther makes this: “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’” Everyone in Communion receives Christ’s true body and blood. This is so because Christ made the bread and wine his true body and blood by his Word. His Words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” do it. As to this, faith is beside the point. The bread and wine are his true body and blood whether you believe it or not.[8] They are because He said so. But to receive the promised forgiveness of sins requires faith in Christ’s Words.

Would Jesus shed his blood for the remission of sins, give you his blood, but not give you with his blood what He shed it for? What would that say about him? Get your eyes off yourself and onto Christ. The question is not, “What sort of person are you?” The question is, “What sort of person is He?” He is this sort: When He makes wine his true blood and gives it to you, He gives you with his blood what He shed it for, the forgiveness of sins. Believing his words, you have what they say.

That is why, as Luther teaches, faith in Christ’s Words of Institution is the worthy preparation for receiving Communion.

Who receives this sacrament worthily?

Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.

Christ speaks “for you” to your heart and bids you to believe. Hang on his Word.

We all suffer from distraction during the Divine Service. Our minds wander. Our attention faints. There is a key moment when we benefit from vigilance to give attention: When the Words of Institution are spoken. Try at least not to miss attending to these Words.

For a right administration of the Sacrament, the Words of Institution must be used. It is sufficient if they are spoken once audibly for the whole congregation. There is no law that they must again be spoken to each communicant during the distribution. But if there ever was a good use of one of our favorite Lutheran words, the word “salutary,” here it is: It is salutary – beneficial, producing a good effect – to repeat the core of the Words of Institution to each communicant. This brings the “for many” and “for you” straight to each weak heart.

The Communion rail is especially suited to this. As a group kneels, the pastor and assistant proceed from one to another, saying to each one, “Take, eat; this is the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given into death for your sins” or “The true body of Christ, given for you;” and “Take, drink; this is the true blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins” or “The true blood of Christ shed for you.” This practice applies the Word directly to each heart. By this the Word calls on each heart to believe and receive the promise of Christ’s New Testament in his blood. In the Christian’s life after Baptism, there are no greater powers than Word, Spirit, true body, and true blood. The practice at the rail provides a moment for each one to hear, believe, and receive. It provides, so to speak, a second chance at the power of the Word. It pauses to let each one recognize by the ear, the eye, and the tongue the Real Presence of the Savior.

Covid-19 has brought this even more clearly into focus for me. Our congregation has altered the administration from the Communion rail to forming lines with social distancing between families. Our Pastor and assistant still say the abbreviated Words to each communicant. But the fact that others are behind you in line and that the line must move is disruptive of the focus on the Words of Christ.

At the rail, as the Pastor approaches you, speaks to you, gives you bread and wine, and passes onto the next person, nothing the procedure requires you to do distracts from attention to the Word. Nothing rushes the moment to pass too fast. You get a chance to catch up to it and not miss it.

By contrast, in a line, there are things you must do besides just hearing and believing. Yes, they are simple things, but for all the simplicity, still they draw attention away from the Word as it is sinking into the heart. As the Words are being spoken, good manners intrude with thoughts of the people in the line behind. Lingering to hear the Word can feel like holding up the next people. Granted, no one is rushing anyone. The distraction is just an unavoidable consequence of a procedure the church did not choose. It is a procedure that was forced upon us by the pandemic.

I will be glad at the restoration of our Communion rail because it is a salutary aid to the worthy reception of the Sacrament. With our Lutheran rubrics at the rail, it supports hearing and believing the Word.

[1] Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 13:8, 17:8; Matthew 25:34; and Hebrews 4:3.

[2] Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12; Isaiah 53; Genesis 3:15.

[3] Hebrews 9:16-17.

[4] See Bryan Spinks, Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Canon of the Mass. Bramcote, Notts.: Grove, 1982, and Carl Fredrik Wisløff, The Gift of Communion; Luther’s Controversy with Rome on Eucharistic Sacrifice. Minnespolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964.

[5] Romans 6:10; and Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:11-14.

[6] David P. Scaer, Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, John H. Armstrong, ed., p . 91 (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2007).

[7] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), 400.

[8] Because the bread and wine are the true body and blood by the Word regardless of faith, to eat and drink unworthily without discerning the body is to eat and drink judgment to oneself. 1 Corinthians 11:29. Unbelief does not prevent the bread and wine being the true body and blood of Christ. His Word remains despite unbelief. He said the bread is his body and the wine is his blood, so they are, regardless of faith or unbelief. And since they are, they do not do nothing. They do something. By unbelief, what they do is judgment. By faith what they do is deliver forgiveness of sins.

7 thoughts on “Looking Forward to Restoration of the Communion Rail

  1. Very good article! Our church gets around some of the issues you mentioned by having the pastors come around to us to for distribution, instead of us moving through a line. But I too miss the communion rail & its “salutary aid,” specifically being so close to the altar. Christ’s body & blood are laid out upon it, like at funeral wake!

  2. I also like the idea of coming to the rail, it’s like coming to the original table.

  3. My congregation still has the communion rail, but they’ve dispensed with the common cup.

  4. My Wisconsin Synod congregation has returned to the rail. Normally we can accommodate 20 at a time, but we have reduced it to 10 to allow for social distancing. The common cup continues to be offered as well as individual cups.

  5. When we built our new sanctuary at Holy Cross in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, the award-winning architect was Roman Catholic and chair of their diocesan building committee. Though the sanctuary was quite contemporary, as required by architectural guidelines of the master planned community, we specified there be a Communion rail, but he kept “forgetting” to include it in the plans. Finally he burst out, “Why would you want one of those? I’ve spent the last 15 years ripping ’em out of every church in the diocese!” I explained that we were “Old Lutherans” sort of like traditionalist Roman Catholics in this regard — putting it in terms he finally understood and so added a lovely rail to the plans. When the building was complete the local priest stopped by to take a look. Upon stepping into the sanctuary, with lots of unique features one could comment upon, the first thing he said was, “You put in a Communion rail? Why would you do THAT in a new church?” I explained we prefer to kneel as a sign of reverence and he said, “People can show reverence just fine standing in line — and it takes a LOT less time.” He actually seemed offended for some reason at the thought of kneeling to receive the Sacrament.

  6. Here, kneeling at the rail was made available again as of about three or four weeks ago, and we also have had the pew cushions returned.

  7. At the congregation we are at, the line formation is being used. The only reason I have been able to ascertain for ever having gone to this alternate form for distribution is a time saving measure in light of the “COVID crisis.”

    Personally, I find it to be disheartening and disappointing. It would add about ten to fifteen more minutes time to the service to continue the use of the rail and maintain social distancing but I guess people’s schedule is more significant to honor than developing and reinforcing “zeal for the house of The Lord” and maintaining cherished practices handed down to us from previous generations bearing theological significance.

    I guess this will probably be chalked up to adiaphora though…

    “Lord have mercy”

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