Q: What is the name and the purpose of the small candle hanging in sanctuaries that is always lit?
A: The name and purpose vary depending upon in what church you find the candle. They may hang from ceiling or wall or may stand on a base. Among most non-Catholic bodies, you may find this candle called an “eternal flame,” or some-such. Usually, its intent is something along the lines of confessing that the light of Christ always burns in a sin-darkened world. Therefore, if you come into one of these churches, you’ll always see the light burning (unless the person in charge of it forgets to change candles, add lamp oil, or — in some places — turn on the light switch).
In Roman Catholicism — and among some other non-Catholic but highly liturgical churches — “sanctuary light” or “tabernacle light” are the commonly used terms. Here, the candle serves as signal that consecrated communion bread remains from a previous celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Upon seeing this, many will bow or genuflect toward the tabernacle, a special box used specifically to hold the consecrated host until the next mass is conducted. This is because of the belief that the body of Christ remains as long as the consecrated bread is uneaten.
Send email to Ask the Pastor.
Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.