Why do Catholics…

Have a Tabernacle Lamp

TabernacleLampOval_smWhy do Catholics have a Tabernacle Light glowing and shining every day and every night, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, except one?

This is a distinctive feature of every Catholic Church, having a light burning in front of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle.  The light hangs from the ceiling of the Sanctuary and for that reason some call it the Sanctuary lamp.  More correctly, its name is the “Tabernacle Lamp.”

Candles play an important and historic part of the Catholic mass, and they are found in areas of the church dedicated to both reflection and gathering.  Candles were once primarily used to give light for reading the Scriptures and celebrating the sacred actions.  Today candles are used more symbolically.  To understand the function of the red light hanging from the ceiling of the Sanctuary of a Catholic church, you must first understand the theology of transubstantiation, and the role of the altar and tabernacle in the Catholic mass.

At the center of the Catholic mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, the breaking and partaking of bread and wine in community to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Catholic theology teaches that through the priest’s words of consecration, the bread and wine are fundamentally changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in a process called ‘‘transubstantiation.’’  The bread and wine continue to look and taste the same, and remain unaltered in chemical composition, but the substance of the Eucharistic elements mysteriously changes to become the real body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The light of fire, penetrating darkness, is a symbol for the Trinity and for the grace or Person of Christ, in particular.  He is “the Light of the world,” as St. John tells us, and “in Him there is no darkness.”  While the light of fire illumines, the heat of it warms us and purifies.  1 Corinthians 3:13-15 tells us that fire will reveal and try our works, burning up the traces of those that can’t enter Heaven (Revelation 21:26-27).  This fire of God’s love, baptizing us, illuminating, warming, and purging us, manifested before Moses in the burning bush and at the Pentecost when tongues of flame appeared over the Apostles’ heads.  Christian liturgy from the beginning, in part because of the obvious symbolism grounded in these accounts use candles and lamps.  Their use, though, is not only symbolic; it is rooted thousands of years ago in the Old Testament.

Exodus 27:20-21

You shall command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of crushed olives, to be used for the light, so that you may keep lamps burning always.  From evening to morning Aaron and his sons shall maintain them before the LORD in the tent of meeting, outside the veil which hangs in front of the covenant.  This shall be a perpetual statute for the Israelites throughout their generations.

Leviticus 6:5-6

The fire on the altar is to be kept burning; it must not go out.  Every morning the priest shall put firewood on it.  On this he shall lay out the burnt offering and burn the fat of the communion offering.  The fire is to be kept burning continuously on the altar; it must not go out.

In Catholic churches, at least one tabernacle lamp burns continually outside the tabernacle where the consecrated Eucharist is kept, signifying the divine presence of God just as the ner tamid burned outside the tabernacle, signifying the presence of God in the Holy of Holies during Old Testament times.

Ner Tamid

An Eternal Light (Ner Tamid) hangs above the ark in every synagogue.  It is often associated with the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand that stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem.  It is also associated with the continuously burning incense altar, which stood in front of the ark (see First Kings, chapter 6).  Our sages interpreted the Ner Tamid as a symbol of God’s eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives.

Once the Ner Tamid was an oil lamp, as was the menorah that stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem, today most are fueled by either gas or are electric lightbulbs.