In the book of Exodus, the Lord commanded Moses to build the tabernacle of God’s presence. It was the meeting place between God and His people. At night, the Lord appeared in the pillar of fire and by day in the pillar of the cloud over the tabernacle. As a sign of His presence, the Lord “command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may be set up to burn continually.” (Ex 27:20)
In our churches, we have something similar before the altar of the Blessed Sacrament. The Sanctuary Lamp burns night and day before the Lord as a testimony of His presence. In the past, the lamp had to burn pure olive oil, however in recent times, it has been exchanged for a candle. The 1983 Code of Canon Law reads “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.” (Can. 940)
Although the sanctuary lamp is red in most places, there is no law regarding color of the lamp. The important part is that a lamp “burns”. For the lamp to burn, it must be either oil or wax. In emergency situations, the lamp can be electric. However, the burning of oil or wax signifies sacrifice. The wax and oil are immolated as a sacrifice of honor and love for the Real Presence. Another important note is that the lamp burn “night and day”. It is a perpetual testimony to the Real Presence of Our Lord, who remains night and day with His people.
Sanctuary lamps come in many shapes and sizes. In the past, most sanctuary lamps hung from a chain or cord in the center of the sanctuary. Some of the lamps have stands, attached to the wall and others sit reardos.