Erect, weathered, silently stalwart, lies the “rail” : the boundary between apse and chancel. It is the wooden boundary between heaven and earth, the pinnacle that acts as the liminal furniture connecting the two.
Many of us miss it. We enter the church after making our way through the parking lot or courtyard, greet the ushers, pick up a bulletin, then look over the nave searching for the pew we will call home for a few moments of our day. We scurry down the aisle to our seat. Being piously inclined, many of us release the kneeler that is tucked under the pew in front of us and send off a few prayers to begin our worship.
We have come to this place, this space, because something happens here that cannot happen anywhere else. We have come to be. To rest. We have come to see what will happen.
Like the disciples of Christ that went out to the mountain, the lake, or the temple, to see and listen to Jesus, we too have come to the place where we hear that Jesus shows up from time to time. In this space, heaven and earth are conjoined; we anticipate a transfiguration.
And, like the disciples, we have trouble seeing Jesus due to the proverbial lakes and trees that are around us in the familiarity of our worship environs. It’s all familiar, even as it is compellingly different than anything outside these church walls.
The narthex is the same. The faces are the same. The pews are the same. The liturgy is the same.
This sameness reminds me of words Jesus spoke to those familiar with his presence and teachings, “Have I been with you so long, yet you still do not know me?” (John 14.9)
Which takes me back to “the rail.” (notice the definite article)
It is quiet, discreet, and hardly anything beautiful to behold. It sits silent, unpolished, and still. Its stature would even suggest it’s lack of importance compared to the stained glass above the altar, the ornate ambry, the majestic organ pipes, or even the Italian Carrera marble baptismal font. Like King David, it is the least likely candidate to gain notoriety. Of all the liturgical furniture, it is the most beaten down and least decorative.
Its wood is hand-carved, but the details so benign that we lose its power in its simplicity. It is boring and flat, hard and without nuance. One should hardly notice it! When was the last time you even gaitve a second thought after resting your elbows upon its stolid frame? At this ruddy example of heavenly furniture, something metaphysical and holy happens that we are apt to miss if we see it for what it is, and not what it does.
The rail is not only a rail, but a block of wood grown from unknown soil. Many years ago, it was a tree, whose branches reached to the heavens. Before that, it was a seed, an unassuming detail of the wilderness fighting for its life. Now, it is the plank that separates heaven and earth, while at the same time being the place where heaven and earth come together in our senses: our eyes, ears, touch, smell, and taste are all awakened as we lean on this wood.
Here, at this place, our elbows find a home with the elbows of those who have died, and also those yet to be born. We kneel where they knelt, prostrate ourselves among saints and sinners, behind us, and before us, and reach our hands out to grace.
At first, our eyes meet the action: We see the crowd coming to this dull plank, all gathering around this piece of wood. We see the messenger of Christ, the priest, and his servers, acting out for us what Jesus acted out on the night he was betrayed: the giving of elements that represent and become Jesus for us. We see others gathered around the table; we try to figure where we will have elbow room and decide where we will sit when it is our turn to receive. We kneel, extend our hands, and notice the bread of heaven is coming our way. It’s shockingly fitting that we serve such manna on this rail the apostles forgot to clean.
Our ears hear the shuffling of feet, the rumpling of pants, the bending of crackling knees, and the thud of arms pressed against hard wood. But our ears also hear sacramental prescriptions: the same sort of prescriptions Jesus spoke to his disciples thousands of years ago.
Take Eat, this is my body.
Take Drink, this is my blood.
The bread of heaven. The cup of salvation.
Our hands extended, we touch the hands of Christ as he extends his body to us. We hold him, and for a short moment, our hands join his around the table. We feel the moment and relive the event. It happens again, here, at this rail. Then, we merge his body with his blood, a holy concoction that we audaciously eat, hoping that just a little bit of this Jesus that has entered us will somehow enliven our dead members.
Taste, smell, see that the Lord is good.
Admittedly, unleavened wafers are not much for the senses, but they are enough. The wafers are firm, and dull, yet possess a quality that is their own. Like the body of Jesus that was broken on the cross, this form of food is unlike anything we eat elsewhere. It dissolves in our mouth, saturating our senses, with a flavor that is known only to it.
The cup is no different. As it passes by, one can smell the vineyard. The fruit of the vine is rich, decadent, and one can stare into the dark abyss of its color and imagine that the richness of this wine is somehow the perfect analogy for the density of God’s love for us. It is not cheap or thin. It is not transparent. The cup is dark and bottomless. It’s volume viscous. It has all the wine the world needs to satisfy its thirst. Wine this warmly inviting, even with stale bread, is the sort of wine you want to share with others; It contains antioxidants for the soul. If the love of God has a smell, it smells like this cup and its taste leaves a long finish on all those who come to this rail.
This past Sunday I had the great honor of serving at this rail, this unassuming piece of wood that is so essential to our worship yet often overlooked. With thankfulness, I took the chalice and set it before my fellow travelers on the way of Jesus, presented them with this cup of salvation, and observed as they ate with the King. My heart was filled with overflowing as I saw people from all walks of life come to the rail. Who am I to hold so precious a cup? To behold the sweet communion between God and people he has redeemed?
But I also noticed this rail. The rail and the people were one; this plank connects us to the story of Christ and the story of one another.
The rail, old and stained, has obviously had crumbs and wine spilled on it along the way. It is weathered and smooth, built to last and holding the stories of thousands of lives who have found forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and adoption on its surface. At St. Luke’s, the rail is what more than a hundred and fifty years of life together looks like. It is messy, unkempt, and essential. It is unattractive, yet it is inviting.
It is just a piece of wood, but it is so much more than a piece of wood. It reminded me of the back-beam of the cross.
As I saw the rail again for the first time, I imagined the cross upon which Jesus hung was equally unattractive. It would have been long, flat, and sturdy, perhaps stained and certainly hand made. It was the place in which heaven and earth collided. Poets, hymn writers, priests, monks, and mystics, even atheist’s, have spent millennia trying to describe what happened on the plank of the cross, the rail that was plunged upright into the ground as it suspended Jesus between heaven and earth.
Upon the plain instrument of wood, the body of Christ was laid out for the world.
This is my body. Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me. All, on the rail.
Yet, it was around the cross that people gathered: the family of Jesus, his disciples, curious onlookers, and even outright haters. The cross was unsightly, stained, unpolished, just a piece of wood that had a tragically beautiful purpose: To gather people to it and connect them to God.
The Gospel of John, 12.32, says it like this, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
The rail. The most bland, dull, forgotten, and hardly mentioned piece of furniture in the church, but the only piece of furniture that was fashioned from a tree, shaped like a plank, and upon which the world gathers to meet and see Jesus.
Surely it is stained. Surely it shows decades of wear and many family meals. Surely it is unsightly and could use some polish. But there is something breathtakingly beautiful that happens here as we kneel together, with saint’s past, present, and future. With divine permission, we put our elbows on the table in anticipation of the food that will never leave us hungry.
The rail. I saw it this past Sunday. I saw and tasted Jesus. I know a lot of other people did too.
But there is always room for more. Come and see.