Altar Lights

ALTAR LIGHTS

Lights to illumine the church, its sanctuary, and the altar, which must be lit during the and other prayers, even if services are held in broad daylight.

In the the commanded Moses to make a lampstand of pure gold according to a particular symbolical design (Ex. 25:31-40; 37:17-24, etc.) and place it at the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table (Ex. 26:35). When Solomon built the temple, he made ten lampstands of gold in the minor shrine (1 Kgs. 7:49; 2 Chr. 4:7). These, together with the other contents of the temple, were removed to Babylon in 587 B.C. (Jer. 52:18).

In the Christian church, the kindling of light is associated with the coming of Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn. 12:46). The book of describes seven lampstands of gold encircling the Son of Man; the author saw the as One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamps of gold (Rev. 1:12; 2:1). Saint Jerome (c. 342-420) was particularly impressed by the use of light in Eastern churches: “Through all the churches of the east, when the Gospel is to be read, lights are kindled, though the sun is already shining; not, indeed, to dispel darkness, but to exhibit a token of joy; . . . and that under the figure of bodily light, that light may be set forth of which we read in the psaltar, “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my paths.'”

Inside the sanctuary of a Coptic church two candle lamps must remain constantly lit: one in the eastern niche, and the other hanging down from the dome above the altar. For the two large candles, placed in candlesticks, one to the north and the other to the south of the altar, are lit by a deacon, who extinguishes them at the end of the service.

Candles (made of beeswax) and olive oil—in accordance with God’s commandment to Moses to use pure oil of pounded olives (Ex. 27:20)—are the only things allowed to be brought to the altar in addition to the bread and wine around the incense.

Candle lamps used in Coptic churches throughout the ages, many of which are scattered over the museums of the Western world, exhibit a considerable degree of craftsmanship. To this, many travelers and church historians have testified, among them A. J. Butler, who writes, “First of all—to be mentioned only with sorrow and regret—come the ancient lamps of glass enamelled with splendid designs and bands of Arabic writing in the most lovely colours. These, the work of thirteenth century artists, were once hung before the haikal in many Coptic churches, but have now entirely disappeared: one or two specimens however may be seen at the British Museum and at South Kensington [the Victoria and Albert Museum] ” (1884, Vol. 2, pp. 69, 70).

  • Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. 1, pp. 321,324. Oxford, 1884.
  • Ibn al-‘Assal, al-Safi. Kitab al-Qawanin. Cairo, 1927.

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