There’s always a light on at the house that’s in your church.
Most of us are aware of what is called “the sanctuary light” in our churches. It’s the candle, usually in a red holder, standing near the tabernacle. (This is why it may also be called a “tabernacle light.”) But not all of us realize that the tabernacle is “a little house,” making its candle something like a light in the window and a reminder of home.
In Latin, tabernaculum means “little house.” Tabernacles are meant to house (reserve) the Blessed Sacrament for use outside of Mass. Over the years, the shape of the vessel that held the sacrament changed — from a basket, when churches were located in people’s homes in the early church — to wall cabinets, to a dove hanging suspended over the altar, to the modern locked, metal compartments we now have.
(Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic also have tabernacles for the Blessed Sacrament — in Eastern churches many of these are shaped like doves or like little churches themselves.)
Whatever the shape, all tabernacles share the same purpose: to house the Real Presence of Christ, readily available to his people. The Blessed Sacrament is the Real Presence of Christ. Because it is present in the tabernacle, we know that Christ himself is also present, waiting for anyone who comes to church to pray or just to visit with him for a while. The sanctuary light signals the Presence that is hidden in the tabernacle.
That sanctuary light must always be present when the Blessed Sacrament is present. Church law states that “a special lamp is to burn continuously before the tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved, to indicate and to honor the presence of Christ” (canon 940).
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal elaborates on this law: “In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ” (n. 316).
While many churches use candles for the sanctuary light — since candles also remind us of the Paschal candle, the Christ candle — sanctuary lights were traditionally filled with olive oil. (Other vegetable oil may also be used.)
This use of oil comes from a link — though not a direct, historical link — to ancient Jewish tradition. The first tabernacle was built to house the Ark of the Covenant during the Exodus journey from Egypt. This was called “the Tabernacle of the Testimony” (mishkan), and it was kept within the sacred tent (the Meeting Tent) where the Presence of God dwelt.
It was in front of this tabernacle, which housed the Holy of Holies, that the Israelites burned lamps of oil. This was in keeping with the Book of Leviticus, a book of ritual laws. In it, the Lord told Moses to “order the Israelites to bring you clear oil of crushed olives for the light, so that you may keep lamps burning regularly … Thus, by the perpetual statute for you and your descendants, the lamps shall be set up on the pure gold lampstand to burn regularly before the Lord” (Lv 241-4).
This Jewish mishkan, which eventually resided in the Temple in Jerusalem, disappeared around the 6th century B.C. And it was not until well into Christian history that sanctuary lamps came into use — thus the link to Judaism is not historically direct, but is still very real.
Until recently, Christian sanctuary lamps were often made of precious metal, such as gold or silver, and were often ornate and heavy. Many are suspended from the ceiling and needed to be lowered by counterweights.
By tradition, the glass surrounding the candle or oil is red (though other colors of glass may be used), just as the candles used at Mass are white. Thus the candles, or oil, symbolize the purity of Christ’s body, while the red light given off symbolizes his blood.
Today, while there is no Temple in Jerusalem, every Jewish synagogue keeps a light burning. Called the ner tamid (“eternal light”), this lamp burns before the ark that holds the Torah scrolls to show honor to God’s name and to the sacred texts. The Torah scrolls remind faithful Jews of God’s love and continued presence.
Jewish historian Rabbi Berel Wein explained the ner tamid as a “symbol of God’s eternal presence amongst Israel. … It teaches the lesson of eternity — of the long view of life and events, and of the unquenchable love between God and his people and of the Jewish people and their Torah.”
For Catholics, the light near the tabernacle also serves to give us a long view of life and eternity and the unchanging love of God. As Jesus told his disciples, “Behold, I am with you until the end of the age.” The little light in the church sanctuary — beside the little house where Jesus waits for us — reminds us of that promise, even if we happen to be “alone” in the church building.
Sources: “Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Built of Living Stones;” the Code of Canon Law (1983); “Dictionary of the Liturgy; chabad.org; “Encyclopedia Britannica”; torah.org; and aish.com