Up to the Brim

The Silence of the Sanctuary Lamp

By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD 

The sanctuary lamp, hanging near the tabernacle and glowing subtle flickers, is a silent assurance of faith that our Lord is present in the Blessed Sacrament. This inaudible testimony of the torch in the sanctuary is an eloquent declaration of Him being there. Although we may not see our Lord imprisoned for love in the little sacred chamber, He truly sees and hears us. More so, He desires for the moment that we visit Him in his solitude. What a wonderful duty and purpose an inanimate thing could have, an ordinary sign of something divine. 

The sanctuary lamp is a fixture mandated by the Code of Canon Law: “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” (canon 940). Such a canonical mandate is resonated in The General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “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” (316). 

The instruction clearly says that the light should be “fueled by oil or wax.” This reminds us of the biblical demand in Exodus: “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 … before the Lord in the tent of meeting, outside the veil which hangs in front of the covenant” (27:20-21). 

Being aware of this foments my delight to see the real light of the sanctuary lamp fed by oil or wax. On the contrary, I have some distaste for electric and artificial lamps, although modern technology could make it seem flickering and real. It’s like seeing fake flowers on the altar. 

There is no explicit prohibition to substitute real light with electric or artificial light. I understand that there may be reasons for its substitution. The flame from oil or wax can be messy as it produces smoke stains to the ceilings and walls. Dirt and stains are serious concerns, especially if there are priceless and historical pieces around. Replacing dying candles with new ones from time to time is tasking too. Needless to say that one has to be always on the lookout to replace them when needed. With electric light, you can just turn it on and forget about it until there is a power interruption. 

There is, furthermore, the fire hazard issue. Apparently, artificial light is safer. However, so far, I have not heard of a church fire provoked by a sanctuary lamp. 

I can understand that the preference of having artificial light can be economical in nature. Obviously, light from oil or wax would entail more from the budget. This point can very well be argued from the viewpoint of love and devotion to the Eucharistic Lord. A soul in love can never be cheap to the beloved. 

The placement of the lamp should be near the tabernacle. There is no specific instruction as to whether it should be hanging or standing on a pedestal. 

Much of this is left at the discretion of who has the decision as to the design and overall aesthetics of the church or oratory. 

There is also no specification as to the color, but it is a common practice that the sanctuary light would be enclosed in a red glass rendering the red hue of the sanctuary lamp. 

Wrapping up, the sanctuary lamp is a visual sign of the Lord’s presence. The flickering flame is a symbol of continuous and ardent devotion, like a sentinel silently accompanying our Lord in worship. 

Its upkeep to maintain the flame is an expression of love and appreciation of our Lord’s presence. The only time the flame is expected to be extinguished is when the tabernacle is empty. In the liturgical calendar, this happens every Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when the Eucharist is reposed somewhere else. 

If there is one more thing that we should learn from the sanctuary lamp, it is this: “We have to learn how to give ourselves, to burn before God like the lamp placed on a lampstand to give light to those who walk in darkness; like the sanctuary lamps that burn by the altar, giving off light till they are consumed” (St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge, n. 44). 

Msgr. Achacoso is the author of “Due Process in Church Administration” (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican), and pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside.