Through a series of informational articles, we will try to explain terms, prayers, and actions that happen in church and at Mass and why they happen. References to GIRM in italics refer to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the book from which rites related to the Mass are codified. We hope this information will help to make your participation in Mass more meaningful and understandable.
You may have noticed that when the tabernacle was moved into the sanctuary, a special candle and candleholder were also moved. This candle is known as a Sanctuary Lamp and contains a special wax candle that burns for 7 straight days before it is changed. There is only one requirement prescribed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and that is that the lamp be near the tabernacle “fueled by oil or wax, and should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ” (GIRM 316). It is also symbolic of God's instruction to Moses that a lamp filled with the pure oil should perpetually burn in the Tabernacle (Ex 27:20-21).
The Sanctuary Lamp is “generally in a red glass container, kept burning day and night wherever the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Catholic churches or chapels. It is an emblem of Christ's abiding love and a reminder to the faithful to respond with loving adoration in return.”1
While a red globe is most common because it is distinguished from other candles such as votives, other colored globes representing the liturgical season may also be used, i.e., green during Ordinary Time, purple during Lent, blue (or purple) during Advent, or clear during Holy Days and the Christmas and Easter seasons. Our candle is currently in an amber globe which has no particular symbolism; it is simply a color that stands out from other candles to make us aware that something special is going on here – Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament contained in the tabernacle.
1 Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, © Eternal Life.