ASK THE LITURGIST (17) – The sanctuary or tabernacle lamp

– Enrico Finotti

The sanctuary or tabernacle lamp: why and how….?

“A special lamp which indicates and honors the presence of Christ is to shine continuously before a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved” (Code of Canon Law, canon 940).

The sanctuary or tabernacle lamp, which always burns, day and night, indicates to the faithful the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and together is a permanent sign of the honor and adoration that the Church always renders to the God who has placed his tent in our midst. In some ways the sanctuary or tabernacle lamp continues the tradition of the ancient Covenant where the seven-branched candlestick [called the menorah — Ed.], by divine order, always had to burn in the temple right in front of the most sacred place, the Holy of Holies. Even today the Jews in their synagogues keep lit a lamp in front of the tabernacle that keeps the scrolls of the Law: “In the eastern wall is the Holy Ark with the manuscript scrolls of the Torah in front of which the perpetual lamp burns. Two candlesticks stand on the eastern wall, towards which prayers are recited” (FEDERICI, T., “Israele vivo,” in Quaderni Missionari, Edizioni Missioni Consolata, Turin, 1962, p. 96).

The sanctuary or tabernacle lamp is extinguished or turned off when the tabernacle is empty. On Holy Saturday, when the Blessed Sacrament is kept outside the church, the lamp follows and so also every time the Sacrament is temporarily transported to another place. For the truth of the sign one must carefully avoid an artificial light, but there must always burn a living flame, fed with oil or wax: “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” (GIRM 316).

In addition to being more worthy and able to create a warmer and more authentic environment, the slow consumption of oil and / or wax is the symbol of our union with the Sacrifice of the Lord and of the inner life of our heart which is consumed in adoring love and in the sacrificial offering: … The oil and the burning wax melt and are consumed in honor of the Divinity, and thus represent a true sacrifice of light: Eucharistia lucernaris … the electric lamp, on the other hand, is a very hasty expedient, which requires no thought for maintenance; therefore, also for this reason, electricity does not symbolize faithfully the devotio, that is the assiduous and loving service of the Levite in keeping alive before the altar of Yahweh the sacred fire of faith” (SCHUSTER, vol. I, p. 165).

It must be in an immediate visual relationship with the tabernacle so that everyone understands that it is relative to the presence of the Sacrament, almost a pointed index of it and must well distinguish itself from the other possible devotional candles. It can be placed on a candelabrum next to the tabernacle as an adoring sentinel, or near the tabernacle on its table or even hung from above. In some churches, especially in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, there is the use of escorting the altar of the Sacrament with two large and artistic candelabra of marble or bronze on which the perennial flame burns. The sacristan must take care that this lamp is always clean and decorous, avoiding that it is a fumigating and insignificant wick and sometimes the residue of a small combustion. In the itinerary of Christian initiation, especially for children of the first Communion, they must be introduced to the sense of the Eucharistic Presence also through the visible sign of the sanctuary or tabernacle lamp, so that they know immediately and recognize in every church the tabernacle and briefly adore it. The largely widespread secular climate, which has removed the silence from our churches, somewhat undermines the sense of Presence and adoring respect of the Blessed Sacrament, so that it becomes difficult not only to be able to pray before or after a celebration, but also to make the genuflection and realize that there is the tabernacle. We will have to seriously reconsider this irruption of the secular in order not to further undermine the growth and spiritual depth of the Christian people.


(From Il mio e il vostro sacrificio. Il liturgista risponde, 2018©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved)


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