“Light my fire,” God tells Moses, “and keep it lit.” That’s my dynamic-equivalence translation of Bible passages — Exodus 25 and 27, Leviticus 24 — that form the basis for the practice of tending a sanctuary lamp.
Happy Hanukkah, whose 2018 edition is now in its final hours. That the sanctuary lamp gets its own (albeit minor) festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar suggests that we owe this religious article more respect than we tend to give it.
You know the origin story, about the miracle of the menorah that, on only enough oil to keep the flame alive for a day, burned for seven more as Judas Maccabee and his chosen priests cleansed and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after it had suffered years of serious desecration. You might say that the miraculous menorah is primarily a symbol of the Maccabees’ success, against the odds, in their revolt against the Seleucid occupation of Jerusalem. Or you might venture that the Maccabean revolt itself is primarily a symbol — of some large, general good, whether it be religious freedom or religious purity or the overthrow of tyrants or of colonial oppressors.
Those interpretations — historical, philosophical, political — are good and valid but incomplete. Don’t neglect the material and the mundane, which in this case is fire and wrought metal: the sanctuary lamp. Fire generates light and heat. The sun, our greatest natural source of them, is low in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year, and so it makes practical sense to stress them now, when we pine for them. Look at Hindus, who celebrate Diwali, their festival of lights, as we approach the winter solstice. It’s no aspersion on the religious seriousness of Hanukkah to note that we can feel more keenly what a sanctuary lamp might mean to God when we can feel more keenly what the fire in the lamp could do for us in a world without electricity or central heating during a long December night.
Ner tamid, the eternal light, burns constantly (or should) near the Ark of the Torah in every present-day place of Jewish worship. The lamp and the ark correspond to the lamp and the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple. Many Christian churches borrowed the practice long ago and over the centuries have assimilated it into their religious practice. A sanctuary lamp burns in Catholic churches near the tabernacle, which holds the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread that is the real presence of Jesus. The tabernacle is an approximate echo of the Ark of the Covenant. Typically, the sanctuary lamp consists of a beeswax candle in a red glass holder nestled inside a metal fixture.
To keep the flame eternal, as it were, the candle is replaced before it burns out — except when it isn’t. For a few years I paid a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament at a Catholic church in the neighborhood I was living in at the time. It often happened that the candle was near empty, with the flame running on a shallow pool of melted wax, and that the church was closing in a few minutes. I would tell the secretary at the office. She would call the pastor, who sometimes would send back word that he’d take care of it in the morning.
Me: “It’ll burn out before then.”
The secretary, sympathy in her face and voice: “I know.”
English has no word for a wholesome love of fire. “Pyromania” means a predisposition to arson. “Pyrophilia” means a love of fire as a source of sexual gratification. Fire is also a pure wonder of nature, though, awesome in itself. The flame dances, like a live creature. It tends toward the color red, like blood, with which some alchemists were wont to identify it. Fire is dangerous, of course, if not controlled, but no less dangerous would be its absence. We need it in optimum doses. The sun is estimated to have another 5 billion years left to burn, so we still have time to develop a relocation plan. Maybe God’s decision to appear as a burning bush that is not consumed was a message that he has come to us as our sanctuary lamp, our ner tamid: “The lights up there will go out someday, but I won’t. Fear not. I’ll be your eternal flame.”