The following is the sixth installment of my bulletin insert series:
Sanctuary Lamp - The sanctuary lamp is the name given to a candle (or electric light bulb) suspended from the ceiling or mounted on the wall near the Lord’s table. The lamp constantly burns throughout the week and, therefore, is also referred to as the “Eternal Light.”
This type of candle/lamp originates from Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology. In the Roman Catholic Church it is believed, based on Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accidents, that the substance of bread and wine, while still appearing (the accidents) to be bread and wine, has actually been transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. This is a doctrine called transubstantiation. Thus, for Roman Catholics, the sanctuary lamp indicates that Christ is eternally present in the reserved sacrament.
Wesleyans in general, and United Methodists in particular, while affirming the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, do not agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Neither do they practice “reserving” the sacrament. Rather, in Untied Methodist usage, the sanctuary lamp signifies Christ’s presence in the church.
It is always important to remember, on the one hand, God does not dwell in houses made with human hands (Acts 7:48). In fact, we, as the people of God, the Church, are the Temple of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22), and Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17). On the other hand, this place has been consecrated and sanctified as a holy place wherein we gather to worship our God. And like Solomon’s Temple of old, we have asked that God’s “eyes may be open night and day toward this house . . .” (I Kings 8:27-30). Thus, the eternal light is a reminder to us that we do not gather alone, but rather, God is in this place.
(As a bit of a footnote: How ironic is it when this [the above] is the bulletin insert for the very Sunday that the electrical light bulb just happens to burn out! - I had to explain that just because the light represents Christ's presence, it doesn't mean that He's not here when the bulb is burned out; Christ doesn't reside in the light bulb!)
Information gathered from the following resources:
Hickman, Hoyt L. United Methodist Altars: A Guide for the Local Church. Nashville, Abingdon P. 1984.
Staples, Rob L. Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality. Kansas City, MO. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. 1991. (BTW, I highly recommend this book!)