Each time we walk into a Catholic Church or chapel we assume that the Blessed Sacrament is present, in repose in the tabernacle. In this Sunday’s Gospel we hear of Jesus being the light, but in our churches there also is “the light” that signifies the Blessed Sacrament indeed is present. It is the tabernacle lamp, a comforting symbol for us Catholics. That small red flicker of the flame burning is our sign that Jesus is truly present and with us. It glows 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year except for Good Friday. On that day the lamp is dark because the Blessed Sacrament has been removed from the church.
The tabernacle lamp comes to us from a long historical tradition. In the Old Testament, God told Moses that a lamp filled with the pure oil should perpetually burn in the Holy of Holies. As the Christian Church began to grow, it carried with it the tradition of the pagans, who kept lamps burning in front of their idols and had lamps and candles burning in honor of our Lord, of his Holy Mother Mary and of the martyrs. From that grew the custom of a lamp burning day and night before the body of the Lord reserved in the tabernacle.
Most churches today have a single lamp burning. However at one time there were often several lamps that were suspended from the ceiling of the sanctuary before the tabernacle. They hung in odd numbers, most often seven lamps, since it is the perfect number and represents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
While red is considered the traditional color of a sanctuary lamp cover, there is no liturgical law regulating the lamp color. Perhaps the cover in your church is gold or white, or even changes according to the liturgical color of the season. What is required is that the lamp be near the tabernacle, fueled by oil or wax (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 316). In older churches you may find the lamp suspended above the tabernacle or placed in a bracket at the side of the altar. In newer churches, it may be on a special niche on the wall, freestanding on a candle stand or set next to the tabernacle itself. The altar lamp may be made of any kind of metal, and can be designed in any shape or form.
As with any materials needed for liturgy, there is a cost to maintaining a sanctuary lamp. It is most common to burn an insert candle that lasts seven to eight days. To offset this weekly expense, as well as give parishioners an opportunity to maintain the sanctuary lamp in a very direct way, some parishes invite weekly sponsorship for the candle. Many people offer this sponsorship in memory of loved ones who are deceased.
In your travels, you may have the occasion to be in a Protestant church that also has a lamp burning. In their church, it is a reminder that Christ is symbolically present. The difference in the intent of the lamp is due to the Holy Eucharist. Christ is substantially present in the tabernacle of a Catholic Church. The lamp in a Catholic church is a sign saying, “Christ is here in the Holy Eucharist within this tabernacle; Christ the ‘true light which enlightens every man’” (Jn 1:9).
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.