Despite the invention of both electricity and modern light bulbs, oil lamps remain a key aspect of Orthodox worship.
Much could be said about the physical arrangement of these lamps in our churches as well their symbolic meaning and significance. Of their literal place in our churches or home prayer corners, this has been Christian practice since the very beginning:
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper chamber where we were gathered. —Acts 20:7–8
The word “lamps” here is λαμπάδες (lampades). Jesus uses the same word in his parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1–13), in which the five wise virgins take extra oil for their lamps to await the bridegroom. Without trying to take anything too far, I must note that—in the first century—of course there would be lamps in a room filled with people at midnight. But as Luke notes the presence of “many lamps,” they seem to bear more significance than providing physical illumination. In fact, the analogy of a light shining in darkness becomes one of the most prevailing Christian metaphors in the history of the Church.
Looking at the parable of the ten virgins, I think it’s important to note the scope of this parable (Matt. 25:1): “the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”
This is a parable of the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of God. And what is this kingdom? It would be more helpful and accurate to call this the “reign” or “ruling power” of God. Being of the eternal God, it is something beyond our understanding and transcendent, and yet it is also that which we are called to experience in a personal and transformative way.
This word “kingdom” is often misused or abused in segments of popular Christianity today, but in the Orthodox faith, the “kingdom of God” is our calling to be united with God; it is our calling to partake of the divine life of the Trinity; it is our calling to salvation. When we partake of this light and glory, we become by Grace what Christ is by nature:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. —2 Pet. 1:3–4
When we partake of he who is light, we also shine as light in the darkness. This too is our mission as disciples of Christ—the Chris-mated One: “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). Christ is he who is anointed with the chrism of the Holy Spirit (as in baptism), and Christians are those who partake of this same anointing—of this Spirit—showing the world how to partake of God’s light-giving presence.
St. Ephrem the Syrian reminds us:
Brightly shine the bones of Prophets, and of Apostles; a lamp to me in darkness, are all the righteous. I worship Him Who lightens for me, the darkness of hades; the splendor of Moses who was so great, was as the sun to me.
—Nisibene Hymns 63:21–22
Light is life, and death is darkness. Christ is he who descended into hades, shining brightly and banishing both death and darkness for all who partake of his anointing Grace and light.
The oil of the wise virgins is the “fuel” we require to not only transition from darkness into light, but also to shine as a light in darkness. And this light is the Grace of God—the uncreated “energies” of the Holy Spirit:
Here the soul has need of a divine lamp, even of the Holy Spirit, who sets in order the darkened house. It needs the bright sun of righteousness, which enlightens and rises upon the heart, as an instrument to win the battle … the soul cannot of itself find its own thoughts, and disengage them; but when the divine lamp is lit, it lights up the darkened house, and then the soul beholds its thoughts, how they lie buried in the filth and mire of sin. —St. Macarius, Homily 11:3–4
Oil lamps require care and attention in order to continually burn clean, still, and bright. The wicks must be trimmed; the oil must be clean and abundant. Lamps cannot be left unattended, nor can we presume that they won’t need additional oil. And this is our spiritual life. Being baptized into the reigning presence of God is only the beginning:
Sometimes the fire flames out and kindles more vehemently; at other times more gently and mildly. The light that it gives kindles up at times and shines with unusual brightness; at others it abates and burns low. The lamp is always burning and shining, but when it is specially trimmed, it kindles up with intoxication of the love of God; and then again by God’s dispensation it gives in, and though the light is always there, it is comparatively dull. —Ibid. 8:2
We have been given a lamp to carry, but that lamp and its fire must be nurtured. A symbol of apostasy in the Apocalypse of John is Christ removing a lamp-stand from the midst of a church—they have neglected the oil; their wicks are frayed.
We must keep our lamp oil clean, unstained from the desires of this present, evil age. The wicks must be trimmed in our hearts, as our spirits are trained to discern between good and evil. We must draw from the well of God’s Spirit, replenishing the oil with continual interest: “But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps” (Matt. 25:4).
As Orthodox Christians, the use of vigil lamps is certainly a key aspect of our piety and worship, but we should not let the deeper meaning escape us. In that still, burning flame is the key to not only our own transformation, but also the transformation of the whole world—as a light shining in darkness.
He puts His worshippers like a lamp on a lamp-stand, and makes them shine throughout the whole world. Are not winners in the games wont to be made famous by the prize of victory, and craftsmen by the skillful design of their work? Shall the memory of these and others like them abide for ever unforgotten, and shall not Christ’s worshippers, concerning whom the Lord says Himself, “Them that honor me I will honor,” be made famous and glorious by Him before all? Shall He not display the brightness of their radiant splendor as He does the beams of the sun? —St. Basil the Great, Letters 221