Sanctuary or tabernacle lamps are a part of every Catholic church. The practice has been around for many centuries, but why are they there?
For those unfamiliar with sanctuary lamps, they are the lamps that can be seen next to the tabernacle or usually suspended in the air in front of it. It is also not uncommon to find them at side-altars or public shrines.
“According to the opinion of reputable theologians, it would be grave sin to leave the altar of the Blessed Sacrament without this light for a day or more.”
Sanctuary lamps originate from the Old Testament. God commanded that a lamp filled with the purest oil of olives should always burn in the Tabernacle: “Command the children of Israel that they bring thee the purest oil of the olives (…) that a lamp may burn always, in the tabernacle of the testimony (…) that it may give light before the Lord until the morning. It shall be a perpetual observance throughout their successions among the children of Israel.” (Exod. 27:20-21) Therefore the Temple in Jerusalem had a perpetually burning sanctuary lamp.
To continue this ancient tradition, the Church prescribes that at least one lamp should continually burn before the tabernacle (Rit. Rom. iv, 6), not only as an ornament of the altar, but for the purpose of worship.
It is also a mark of honor. It is to remind the faithful of the presence of Christ, and is a profession of their love and affection. Mystically the lamp signifies Christ, because through the candle light, Our Lord is represented, Who is the “true light which enlighteneth every man” (Jn 1:9).
Why the Church uses candles to represent Christ, see our previous article: Why church candles are white in color?
“Because olive oil is a symbol of purity, peace, and godliness, sanctuary lamps oil should be composed of at least 60-65% pure olive oil.”
For symbolical reasons olive oil is prescribed for the lamp burning before the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, because olive oil is a symbol of purity, peace, and godliness. For this reason, sanctuary lamps oil should be composed of at least 60-65% pure olive oil. Where olive oil cannot be had, it is allowed, at the discretion of the ordinary, to use other, and as far as possible vegetable, oils (Cong. Sac. Rit., 9 July, 1864).
In case of necessity, that is, in very poor churches, or where it is practically impossible to procure olive or vegetable oils, the ordinary, according to the general opinion of theologians, would be justified to authorize the use of petroleum. However in today’s world, there are but few parishes that can claim this exemption on the plea of poverty.
According to the opinion of reputable theologians, it would be a serious neglect, involving grave sin, to leave the altar of the Blessed Sacrament without this light for any protracted length of time, such as a day or several nights (St. Lig., VI, 248).
“Tabernacle lamps are often colored red, to distinguish this light from other votive lights within the church.”
Red sanctuary lamps
Sanctuary or tabernacle lamps are often colored red, though this is not prescribed by law. This serves to distinguish this light from other votive lights within the church. In the Catholic Church, red is widely used despite the preference for white expressed by Fortescue.
Multiple sanctuary lamps permitted
If the resources of the church permit, it is the rule of the Caerem. Episc. (1, xii. 17) that more than one light should burn before the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, but always in uneven numbers, i.e. three, five, seven, or more.
The lamp is usually suspended before the tabernacle by means of a chain or rope, and it should hang sufficiently high and removed from the altar-steps to cause no inconvenience to those who are engaged in the sanctuary.
It may also be suspended from, or placed in a bracket at the side of the altar, provided always it be in front of the altar within the sanctuary proper (Cong. Sac. Rit., 2 June, 1883). The altar-lamp may be made of any kind of metal, and of any shape or form.
Sanctuary lamps powered by gas (Ephem. Lit., IX, 176, 1895) and electric lights (Cong. Sac. Rit., 4 June, 1895) are not allowed.
Beeswax church candles
Besides the sanctuary lamps, most other candles are made out of beeswax. To find out why and the symbolism behind it, read our other article: Why church candles are white in color?
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