Friday, May 23, 2008


Continuing our discussion on candles.

The Sanctuary Lamp is found by the tabernacle and indicates whether the Blessed Sacrament is present or not. If the lamp is lit one should genuflect before the presence of Jesus. If the lamp is extinguished and not, presumably, merely burned out, one bows before the altar, which then becomes the primary symbol of Christ in the sanctuary.

This lamp burns perpetually and is ideally fueled by olive oil to adhere to the mandate in Sacred Scripture, “And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the tabernacle of the congregation without the veil, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the LORD: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel. (KJV)” (Exodus 27, 21-22.) It seems that most parishes however simply burn wax candles. The burning of an electric light or a gas light is expressly forbidden. Usually there is one candle burning (our tradition has it shine through red glass, but that is not mandated) though there may be more candles. They should always be of an odd number however. (1,3,7, etc.) Before the more recent major renovations of the Cathedral of St. John in Cleveland there were seven Sanctuary Lamps around the tabernacle. One remains today. The picture with this article is one of the lamps that used to hang there but now burns before the tabernacle at the Church of Saint Clare.
An “eternal flame” of sorts has always been a sign of vigilance and honor. Just think of the Eternal Flame for a Fallen President at Arlington National Cemetary. Additionally, this flame not only informs us of Christ’s presence but also symbolizes Christ the Light of the World as all candles in the sanctuary do. Or rather - should do.


Anonymous said...

What about the number of candles when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed? Or even not; our Adoration chapel has 4 candles on the wall behind the tabernacle, and then of course, 2 candles for Mass on either side of the altar.

I won't get your answer until I get home after class this evening...have a great day all!

uncle jim said...


and then those are not an 'odd' number of candles, either.

maybe it signifies something else?

hope you had a good day in academia.

Anonymous said...

We have 2 candles beside the tabernacle,one on either side, that are only lit for mass. Are those counted? Although that would make an uneven number with the sanctuary candle.


Anonymous said...

Our little RC church up the street has just put two lovely candelabra (I goofed the spelling, didn't I?) on the altar. I don't know about the Lord, but I sure needed them.

Our symbolism is so rich, when one stops to think about it all. And how comforting it all is, not least of all in candles, as it points to the Light of the World. In many church meetings including many RCIA nights, the leader would light a candle before our prayer. The flame reminds us; it hushes the heart. In the olde days, there was at least one candle burning during Viaticum, I think. And if I remember correctly, my mother-in-law would light a candle when the EMHC came to her home with the Eucharist. The flame reminds hushes the heart, doesn't it.


Fr. V said...


Good points of clarification.

Most of the candles about which you are now speaking are different candles and will be talked about next week. They are in a different category and do not effect the number concerning santuary lamps.

Fr. V said...


Yes, you are correct. I'm not sure why we stopped doing that. More reserch needed on my part I guess. Perhpas it had something to do with the advent of so many ill and homebound people being on oxygen. ;>)

Anonymous said...

Off topic!! I went to the website for Priest magazine but couldn't access your article because it says for subscribers only. Would you be able to put a link to it on your post?


ashley said...

Sorry to be late in joining the conversation... Why should there be an odd number of sanctuary lamps? My church has two. Is this truly wrong and in need of remediation?

Fr. V said...


I haven't found anything (yet) as to why - just that. Perhpas it has to do with the symbolism of the numbers. Odd numbers TEND to be more God oriented. ONE God, THREE persons, FIVE wounds, SEVEN Holy Spirit.

TWO - well, books of the Bible - natures of Christ - it fails here. FOUR - Earthly things (or Gospels) SIX - incompletelness. EIGHT - baptism.


uncle jim said...

perhaps we're not talking apples and apples - maybe we got apples and oranges going here.

sanctuary lamp = one

candles at the altar or tabernacle / place of repose = 2 or more?

ashley said...

Sorry uncle jim, but I am referring to Sanctuary lamps (the red glass enclosed candles in the Blesssed Sacrament Chapel where mass has not been celebrated in at least the past four years).
"They should always be of an odd number." But there doesn't have to be an odd number?