Friday, June 26, 2009

The Sanctuary Lamp

There is a longstanding custom in Lutheran Churches, to keep a candle always lit in the east end of the church, near the altar. It is called the sanctuary lamp, or the eternal light, or perhaps other similar terms. I would offer, as food for thought, a criticism of the way in which this is practiced in many Lutheran churches. What I have in mind is the practice of having an eternal light in the sanctuary of churches that do not reserve the Blessed Sacrament.

Please note that at the top of this discussion I refer to this as a custom, and not as tradition. It does not deserve to be classed as part of the tradition of the church, and any defense of it as a respect for tradition is misguided, wrongheaded, and quite mistaken.

The Sanctuary Lamp has essentially one purpose, namely, to signify that one is in the presence of our Lord, Who is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, reserved in the tabernacle. Such a signifying has the twin purpose of 1. honoring Christ, a sort of keeping vigil with the sacred Body of Christ, and 2. giving the faithful the opportunity and occasion to adore their Lord. In churches where the Sacrament is not reserved, it is appropriate to bow deeply upon reaching one's pew, or when crossing the center, as a way of showing reverence to the altar, the great symbol of Christ, our Sacrifice for sin. And where the Sacrament is present, it is appropriate and traditional to worship the truly present Christ by bended knee. Indeed, between the consecration and the ablutions in the Mass, this is done by kneeling. And in churches where the Sacrament is always present, traditional practice is to adore our Lord by genuflecting upon reaching one's pew, kneeling at one's place in the pew for a few minutes in prayer, genuflecting when leaving the pew to go to Communion, also when returning to the pew after Communion, upon departing, and whenever crossing the center of the church. The traditional tell tale when entering a church, as to whether the Sacrament is present, is the Sanctuary Lamp, or its absence.

In the effort of so many Lutheran churches to take a thing with which they disagreed (reservation of the Sacrament), but the external form associated with it which they apparently liked (the burning of the eternal light), and give it a new meaning, such as the presence of the Spirit of God, or the omnipresence of God, or God's eternal love, or any number of other arguments I have heard, what is really being done, surely unwittingly, is a deception. The sanctuary lamp tells those who enter its line of sight that in that space, very near that light, is the consecrated Bread of the Blessed Sacrament, which is the very Body of Christ.

The Lutheran Church, let us be clear, teaches clearly and boldly, with the Church Catholic of all its classic denominations, that the consecrated bread and wine is the very Body and Blood of Christ. By "very" I mean true, real, substantial. By it I mean exactly what it sounds like. By it I mean what the Calvinists and Evangelicals do not mean when such terms have at times been used by them in reference to their doctrine. Christ is really and personally present in the Blessed Sacrament. The Sacrament exists for basically one purpose, namely, that the faithful may be united with their Lord in the consumption of the same, for the forgiveness of their sins, and indeed, for the innumerable and immeasurable blessings of which union with Christ consist, such as strengthened faith, and comfort. That is, it is instituted for us Christians to eat and to drink. And when we do so, when we consume the Sacrament, we do not take a part of Christ away from Him, as we are crassly accused by deniers of the Sacrament, but in fact, it is consumed without ever being consumed. Thus, the fire that Moses encountered is a fitting picture in this regard. The presence of Christ is beyond all mathematics, as the Blessed Reformer stated in his debate with Zwingli. And, as he urged in his Brief Confession almost two decades later, the poetry of St. Thomas Aquinas is also helpful and clear, in that Christ, all of Him, is given to one, and to the next. Christ's presence, then, is reliable and true, before we approach the altar, and also as long as it is reserved in the tabernacle, for such reservation is practiced in many churches, even some of our own, for pastoral reasons, ie., for its consumption by the faithful.

With this doctrine of the true presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist in mind, Lutheran churches place themselves in an awkward position when they keep the eternal light, while assigning to this eucharistic symbol a Calvinist definition or significance. Many of our churches have a eucharistic practice that is irreverent, shameful, and in short, quite fitting for a Calvinist or a Zwinglian theology. So in that regard, perhaps the empty practice of lighting the eternal light without the accompanying presence of the Sacrament is fitting after all in some of our churches.

Yet in all seriousness, Christian respect, and friendliness, I do call upon the reader to consider, or reconsider, these matters. My recommendation for those parishes and chapels that do not reserve the sacrament is twofold.

1. Consider doing so. And when you do, I encourage all the traditional expressions of reverence that have been such a healthy part of the liturgical tradition of the West. We can discuss all of those matters in due time.

2. Until you do institute the reservation of the Sacrament, extinguish the sanctuary lamp. At this point in your church, it is a practice which truly signifies nothing, that is, the absence of Christ. This is a perversity of matters. And I do not say this to insult, or be disrespectful. And if it helps your decision making process, think of all the money you will save in the mean time. And know that this discussion is not condemnation, but suggestion, and food for thought. When you keep doing things the way you've been doing it, I'll love you like a brother anyway.


gnesio-lutheran said...

Your post brings up an interesting point- historically, most Lutherans have not reserved the consecrated host, due to fears of potential 'abuse', such as was rife in the medieval Church.
But currently, the 'abuse' takes an entirely different form- Christ's Blood being served in plastic shot glasses, leftover hosts stored in tupperware 'pyxes' (or even thrown in the garbage.)
No wonder modern Lutherans often have a Zwinglian/Calvinist understanding of the Blessed Sacrament.
I agree that dignified and prominent reservation would alleviate some of this lack of reverence, and give our often beautiful sanctuary lamps a real legitmate purpose.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

You said it. By the way, gnesio-Lutheran, I ought to know you, since your profile puts you in Walker's Point. If you like, please feel free to disclose yourself to me.

Past Elder said...

Years ago, post RCC and pre Lutheran, I used to go to a meeting of something else in a Lutheran church and would pass by the sanctuary and see the lamp but no tabernacle and at the time took it as confirmation that Lutherans were just people trying to be Catholic without being Catholic, here, keeping a sign of something without the something and not having a clue that's what they're doing.

So I continued to pass by the sanctuary in another sense too.

It's just as you say, the sanctuary lamp is a sign of the presence of Christ in the reserved sacrament in the tabernacle. It has no other meaning. In fact it, along with the presence it signifies, descends from and fulfills the lamp and the showbread in the Temple.

Past Elder said...

PS -- you see the descent and fulfillment in the synagogue too, the light beside the tabernacle containing the Torah scroll, from which the Gospel fulfills the Law in the light by the tabernacle containing the presence of Christ.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Nice contributions to the subject, PE. Thanks.

saxoniae said...

We have a sanctuary lamp hanging near our altar donated by my great-grandmother upon the death of my uncle in the year he would have been confirmed, 1972. It was put into use the same Sunday we started using acolytes (I think their cassocks & surplices are that old too). I was a baby then but it's been there as long as I can remember and has never been extinguished except to put up a new candle each Friday.

We don't have a tabernacle but we always have consecrated hosts left over that are reserved in a separate location -- yes, plastic.

And more plastic: I'm still trying to get them to go back to 'glass' shot glasses instead of the plastic ones. Our congregation went without a common cup for over forty years so not many of them will drink out of the chalice which was donated a few years ago.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...


The basic elements of your church's story can be seen in dozens, maybe hundreds, of parishes all over. It is the story of the liturgical tragedy of modern Lutheranism. God can accomplish all things, however. So I pray for genuine evangelical and catholic renewal of the liturgical practice in your church, and everywhere, just as it is continuing in mine. And we must not only pray, but work, speak, write, study, converse. The complacent ones cannot stop us. For our Eucharistic Lord is on our side.

The Rev. BT Ball said...

At the parish I was placed in after graduation, there was a sanctuary lamp. After a funeral soon after my ordination, a gentleman asked me where the sacrament was reserved. I asked him why he inquired, "The candle is lit". I asked if he was Roman Catholic, and he said yes, as he knew what the candle meant.

hn160 said...

We have a sanctuary lamp in our church, we keep the consecrated host in a ciborium and any unused consecrated wine that is in the common chalice is poured on the ground. We also use individual glass communion cups for the ones that don't want a common cup, that left over wine is poured into a glass cruet. The water that is used to rinse the individual cups is poured on the ground.


Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks for your input, Henry. The individual cup makes no sense in a church that teaches the Real Presence. Clearly, however, there are, at present, parishes where the practice is all too firmly in place, and I know of good pastors who are working toward its elimination. The other thing that is clear is that there are definitely less reverent ways of dealing with the shot glasses than others. Change must happen in increments, but it must happen, if we take our Confession seriously.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Father Ball,
As Dr. Scaer has been heard to say, "Catholics make the best Lutherans."

Rev. Luke T. Zimmerman said...

Br. Latif:

To echo Pr. Ball's comment, I had a visiting Calvinist who was well read in church practice inquire about the sanctuary lamp in my church. He understood the Roman practice of the lamp and asked if we taught the same.

Since my arrival, we have the reserved elements on the credence in the chancel (hosts in a pyx; wine in a cruet). So we more-or-less have the practice underlying the use of a sanctuary lamp. Now if the congregants understand what the meaning of the lamp's use........that's another question.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. It is a topic that deserves analysis and discussion.


Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks, Fr. Luke, for the input. I appreciate getting first hand accounts about what is being practiced in our church. Your practice is commendable, and a good step in the right direction. Re: the people's understanding, they will catch on in time, and it will happen because of your efforts in two fronts, 1. your behavior (and the behavior your expect of acolytes, assistants, &c.) and 2. your words, teaching, preaching, &c.

Phil said...

Dcn. Gaba,

When do you plan to discuss the reasons you're encouraging sacramental reservation?

I'm not interested in tearing people to shreds; I haven't figured out what I think about it yet. Still, I hope you'd explain your support for the practice before you advocate it.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Phil,

I am not in any way shy of discussing and defending the reservation of the Sacrament. But bear in mind a couple things.

1. Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament is not an issue that I just pulled out of a vacuum for this discussion, for just about a month or two ago, it was very hotly debated at Father Burnell Eckardt's blog (, and at the Gottesdienst editors' blog (, as well as surely elsewhere.

Therefore, in one sense, this post is merely a practical, liturgical, accompaniment to the arguments for reservation that are found in those discussions.

2. In another sense, this post has its own merits quite apart from that discussion. For it is basically to say, whether one ever buys into reservation or not, that we should be consistent liturgically. In other words, if you do not want to reserve the Sacrament, this post is still for you, because it at least urges you, in that case, to stop using the catholic and eucharistic practice of burning the sanctuary lamp. There are two, count them, two ways to fix the modern Lutheran inconsistency of the sanctuary lamp. One is to do what the lamp signifies. The other is to eliminate the lamp.

Also know that I do not expect a pastor a make either type of change tomorrow. I am not interested in doing violence to our people. There is an enormous difference, however, between tomorrow and never, or between tomorrow and five years from now. A pastor can actually start talking about these things within his parish, etc.

What ought to be respectfully asked of those who use the lamp, with no Sacramental presence, is to give their rationale and defense.

3. Perhaps, indeed, you have missed some of those discussions. (Much of it was worth missing.) So I'm glad you have called upon me to give my reasons for reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. It is one of the chief goals of my life to be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh a reason of the eucharistic hope that is in me, and do do so with meekness and fear. Please know, however, that the reason I tend to only blog about once a week lately is because of the time and energy taxing nature of my work schedule, etc. But I will try to address this soon. Thanks.

Phil said...

Fair deal. I've tracked all those discussions (the ones this spring, the ones last summer, some older than that) and I've been trying to get my hands on whatever material I can get which addresses the debate from a Lutheran standpoint.

If you're agreeing with the reasons given before, then I don't necessarily need you to repeat them if I know where you're coming from (right or wrong). And restarting the debate on your own blog might be more trouble than you'd like. It is unfortunate that those debates tend to degenerate; the issues at stake are far to important to be obscured by personal squabbling. If everyone can come to the correct consensus in doctrine and practice on this point we'll be better off by far.

Maybe an individual discussion on this would be better, if you've got the time.

saxoniae said...

The Lutheran Confessions do mention the reservation of the consecrated host as a practice, but are clear that this is not to be considered the Sacrament.

The brochure that came with our sanctuary lamp (still in the box after forty years) didn't mention its historical use. It is essentially a new tradition.

christl242 said...

Well -- in most of the Lutheran churches I've known the Lamp was placed near the pulpit to emphasize the presence of Christ in His Word.

Go figure!

It's very difficult to reintroduce reservation without getting into the whole hassle about transubstantiation. Because if transubstantiation is true exactly as Rome explains it, there is no reason not to have Eucharistic adoration of the consecrated host.

Even the Orthodox don't practice that and their lineage is just as ancient as Rome's.


gnesio-lutheran said...

"Even the Orthodox don't practice that and their lineage is just as ancient as Rome's."

Actually, the Orthodox do reserve the consecrated Sacrament in a tabernacle.

But you are correct in that they do not accept transubstantiation nor do they practice eucharistic adoration. They also administer the Sacrament under both kinds.

The Orthodox show us that it is indeed possible to reverently reserve without resorting to abuse.

christl242 said...

Actually, the Orthodox do reserve the consecrated Sacrament in a tabernacle.

Um, yes, I am aware of that. As a Catholic I worshipped in both Latin rite and Eastern Catholic churches as well as visiting a few Orthodox parishes. But the tabernacle is not the focus of piety for Eastern Christians. They don't focus on how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, approaching it as a mystery. Adoration of the reserved Sacrament is forbidden so the point of reserving it is entirely different from what Rome does, especially since the tabernacle is on the altar and when the Royal Doors are closed not visible to the people anyway.

Many Catholic parishes also now offer Holy Communion under both kinds.

Again, in all my years of growing up Lutheran I never once encountered a Lutheran parish with a visible tabernacle where the Sacrament was reserved. My goodness, Lutherans aren't even united on how long the Presence remains outside of the Lord's command to eat and drink. I think the Orthodox have the right idea. Let's just leave it as the mystery it is and obey the Lord's command.


gnesio-lutheran said...

"I think the Orthodox have the right idea. Let's just leave it as the mystery it is and obey the Lord's command."

I would certainly agree- as I pointed out, it is possible to reserve without it degenerating into abuse, as the Orthodox have demonstrated for centuries.

And it is also true that eucharistic reservation is still rare among Lutherans, due to a lingering (though probably unfounded)fears that this will bring about the abuses prevalent in Rome at the time of the Reformation.

But the sacramental abuses we Lutherans often encounter today take quite the opposite form- the sacrament is distributed and treated in a way that visibly demonstates an utter rejection of the doctrine of the Real Presence. The reverent reservation of the sacrament in a tabernacle, not for adoration but for later communion of the homebound, might be one way to profess our belief that Jesus is truly present. Even if one holds to a 'receptionist' viewpoint, what is the harm in treating the remaining 'bread' and 'wine' in a dignified manner?

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

just to let participants know that conversation, even disagreement here, is okay by me, and I must simply let it happen largely without my input for now. Maybe this weekend I will be able to engage the topic substantively. Until then I let the discussion happen, unfettered, unless and until bureaucrat editors get involved.

christl242 said...

And it is also true that eucharistic reservation is still rare among Lutherans, due to a lingering (though probably unfounded)fears that this will bring about the abuses prevalent in Rome at the time of the Reformation.

Here, again, I would respectfully disagree. Lutherans historically have been content to know that by the power of the Word which effects what it says in Holy Baptism the Word is mysteriously joined to water and in the Sacrament mysteriously joined to bread and wine. And it is enough. We don't concern ourselves with Roman Eucharistic piety as it expresses itself in adoration and Corpus Christi processions.

But the sacramental abuses we Lutherans often encounter today take quite the opposite form- the sacrament is distributed and treated in a way that visibly demonstates an utter rejection of the doctrine of the Real Presence.

A problem certainly not limited to Lutherans. It's unfortunately a sign of the poor catechesis of the past couple decades. The Church of Rome even with its "high" Eucharistic sacramental theology is having the same problem, maybe even more than we are.

The reverent reservation of the sacrament in a tabernacle, not for adoration but for later communion of the homebound, might be one way to profess our belief that Jesus is truly present.

In principle I don't find this objectionable but again until Lutherans can unite around a common theology of the Presence it would probably become another matter of adiaphora.

Even if one holds to a 'receptionist' viewpoint, what is the harm in treating the remaining 'bread' and 'wine' in a dignified manner?

I'm afraid a believing Catholic would consider that idolatry, the reverencing of mere matter. For a Catholic the issue is very simple -- either the bread and wine are and remain the Body and Blood or they aren't and don't.


Past Elder said...

A lot of this issue is theology for no purpose.

It is true that the original basis -- if you can find it among all the accretions -- for things like Benediction of the Blessed Savrament etc is to reverence the true presence of Jesus.

However, what did Jesus give that presence for -- take and eat, take and drink, not take and adore, or don't take but adore.

We reverence him best when we just stick to what he said, not theologise it up with add-ons.

Father Hollywood said...

Saxoniae wrote:

"The Lutheran Confessions do mention the reservation of the consecrated host as a practice, but are clear that this is not to be considered the Sacrament."

In the passages related to the abuses of parading the consecrated hosts about, the point is that it is only a sacrament when it is eaten and drunk. In other words, in that sacramental action is where the "for you" is delivered. Though adoring Christ in His physical presence is a good and fitting thing (just as the magi bowed and worshiped the baby Jesus), the forgiveness of sins doesn't come from adoration, but from consumption.

However, even prior to the eating and drinking, the consecrated elements are still the Lord's Body and Blood. The Word makes it so. Even as we confess against the Reformed: "Is means is."

And when understood this way, we *can* use the word "sacrament" in a broad sense to include consecrated elements that have not yet been eaten and drunk (such as what is reserved in a Lutheran tabernacle). For Luther cites Augustine in the Large Catechism: "Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum... when the Word is joined to the external element, it becomes a sacrament" (Tappert p. 448) - which is also a confessional condemnation of receptionism.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Okay, I am ready finally to spend a few moments here at this discussion. My apologies for my absence. Most of my waking life, quantitatively speaking, is in the hotel world. Dealing with guest complaints and counting filthy lucre must take precedence, unfortunately.

Anyway, looking over these comments, I see that Fr. Hollywood has actually effectively answered the theological objections raised. To be sure, the theological apologia for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament could be stated in many ways, in few and in many words. For the moment, I let his succinct words suffice.

To Phil, though, who has asked for a substantive treatment of the issue, I still do have it in mind as a topic for another future blog post. Moreover, I do commend to the reader the discussion here:

and here:

and here:

and here:

Aside from the question of the appropriateness of the reservation of the Sacrament, however, I reiterate that the particular point of this blog post was to simply argue that the sanctuary lamp is inappropriate, and even misleading, where there is no reservation of the Sacrament.

On that front, where I originally thought Mr. Schenks (ie. saxoniae) agreed with me, after seeing his own recent blog entry, it seems that that is not necessarily the case. (

I also have been tipped off to the fact that there are other bloggers who are explicitly attacking and misrepresenting me on this whole issue. For now I won't cite them here.

This is not the sort of question one can really debate, if the opponent is intent on remaining convinced that his theory is valid. I am not about trying to debate anyone to death on this. I would simply point out, however, that just because your pastor, or Sunday School teacher, or parent told you that the sanctuary lamp signifies the ever present love of God, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever, doesn't make it thereby true. Just because there is a pamphlet in your file drawer from so many years ago, doesn't in itself justify such an odd innovation as the burning of a sanctuary lamp, with no tabernacle in sight.

As Past Elder said, "there is no other meaning" in the sanctuary lamp than its eucharistic significance. He is right. To those who persist in thinking and claiming in the blog world that I am a legalist, and a romanist, please just read this blog post over again, and notice my tone. Also, notice that I do not insist at all that the reservation be practiced. Some of my best priest friends believe in consuming the body and blood remaining at the altar.

The reservation of the most holy sacrament is a good, noble, and pastorally wise idea (though indeed it is pastorally impossible in some parishes to institute it at this time), and where it is done, it ought to be done with the reverence that befits our Lord, such as the burning of the sanctuary lamp. I'm sure there will be more to say on this.

saxoniae said...

I have no objections to reserving the consecrated host or using a sanctuary lamp to announce the fact.

I thought that the introduction in italics on my recent blog made it clear that the text was a reproduction of a note that was distributed with our sanctuary lamp when it was donated years ago, probably as part of a funeral bulletin, and not written by me.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks for the clarification. It was hard to know exactly how to connect the dots correctly, since your entry didn't really have a lot of commentary.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

To be sure, Fr. Schenks, it was clear to me that you were producing a quotation. What is unclear is the reason for the quote, and the entry. That is why I said simply that "it seems that that is not necessarily the case" as to your agreement with me. As I say, I appreciate your clarification in your latest comment, and my suggestion would be for you to make your view clear at your blog.

saxoniae said...

That should be Mr., not Fr.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

mea culpa