“And the Lord said to Moses, “Command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil from beaten olives for the light, that a lamp may be kept burning continually. Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of the meeting, Aaron and his sons shall keep it in order from evening to morning before the Lord continually; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Leviticus 24: 1-3).
Even after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews preserved this statute, both offering glory and praise to God at the lighting of the evening light. Those Jews who became Christians also maintained this pietistic practice, lighting the evening lamp – first, reminding themselves that Christ is “the light of the world”; second, bringing Him into their midst; and third offering fitting praise and glory to Gladsome Light of the world.
Nicholas Upensky in Evening Worship reminds the reader that the lighting of the evening lamp was both accepted by and commonplace in the early Church. In addition to referencing rubrics from Divine Services, he offers the description of the falling asleep of St. Macrina, offered by her brother, St Basil the Great. The evening lamp was carried into St Macrina’s room at dusk. Seeing the lamp, she gazed intently and attempted to say the appropriate prayer of thanksgiving for the light. As her voice began to fail, she completed the prayer mentally, moving only her hands and lips. As she finished the prayer of thanksgiving and lifted her hand to make the sign of the cross, she drew one last, heavy breath. Upensky writes: “Thus a dying Christian woman, on seeing the evening lamp, gathered her remaining strength to utter the prayer of thanksgiving for the light.”
Allow me to again state the oil which is offered and fuels the perpetual light in the altar as well as the vigil lights that are found throughout the Church and in our homes, is of the olive. Through Scripture, we are taught that the olive holds great significance to both God and man, hence its frequent use by the people of God. It was an olive branch that served as a token of reconciliation between God and humanity after the flood. It was olive oil, which was poured over a pile of stacked rocks as detailed in the Book of Genesis to mark the physical spot of a revelation of God. Olive oil was used to anoint and establish Kings. Olive oil was used to make the face shine according to the Psalmist.
In the New Testament, it was olive oil that was used by the elders (priests) to anoint those who were sick which matured into the Rite of Holy Unction. Olive oil would be used in the Rite of Baptism as well as in the mixture of Holy Chrism. It would be olive oil that would be taken from the vigil lights that would burn in front of icons or Holy Relics, which would then be used for anointing the faithful. And, it is olive oil that is used to consecrate an altar table.
Since olive oil maintains such significance in the Church, ideally, it also finds a place within our homes and private devotion. Specifically, each of our homes should have a vigil light which burns in the proximity of our home altar or at least in the presence of an icon. A vigil light, wicks and a float for the wicks can be purchased in the Bookstore and are truly added blessings for personal devotion.
I was explaining to a friend this past week that a dark room illuminated by a vigil light has a different feel, for lack of a better word. The flickering of the flame and the light which bounces off of icons and other items seems to create sacred space, or at the least, reminds me that everything, even that which is unseen by the world remains in the vision of God, His Holy Mother and all the Saints. Seeing their icons as I retire for sleep or as I enter our home through the front door – both locations of vigil lamps which are at various times lit further reminds me of their presence, which ever sanctifies our home. Where a lamp is kept and when it is lit remains a decision of the household, but its presence is a blessing. Again, if it is found within the Church proper, shouldn’t it be found within the home Church?
Another means by which we can bring olive oil into our homes is through the acquisition of blessed oil taken from vigil lights from various shrines and churches around the world. As part of private devotion, the oil can be used for anointing the forehead, the chin, the cheeks, as well as the palms and the top of the hands with the seal of the Cross, and through the intercessions of a particular saint. The vigil lights that burn to the left of the Sanctuary for instance, each contain a blessed oil from their respective shrines, that is, Churches that contain the Holy Relics of the particular saint – St. Anna, Saint John of San Francisco, St. Panteliemon, St. Nectarios and St. Herman of Alaska. Acquiring the oil is as easy as simply requesting it after a service or throughout the week. I should mention that it is used by the faithful through the intercessions of a saint. It is not to be used on pets or animals, used in foods, or simply tossed away after one use. It is kept in a safe and sacred location within the home, and only disposed of by returning it to the Church or if it is on cotton or a cotton swab, it is respectfully burned.
I would be remiss where I not to mention, that a vigil light is not meant to simply be a conversation piece in the home. It is meant to be a tool of the faithful Christians to dwell therein, reminding them and all who come into the house of the presence of God and the glory due to Him as it was in the Tent of Meeting and the Temple of Solomon. Therefore, as an appropriate prayer is offered at the burning of incense, so there are prayers that are fitting when a lamp is lit or when prayers are said in proximity to the light. This prayer of the 11th century is one such example with which I close this morning:
O Lord, our God, You have established the light unapproachable, and according to Your great mercy have you brought us to the present evening and have raised us up to the evening doxology. Receive us, Your unworthy servants, and protecting us from the darkness of sin, enlighten our spiritual eyes, that we may always abide in the fear of You and walk in Your light; that we may understand Your wondrous works and in all things glorify You as the only true God and lover of mankind. For Yours is the majesty, the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.