“Command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to make the lamps burn continually. Outside the veil in the tabernacle of testimony, Aaron and his sons shall keep [the lamps] burning from evening until morning before the Lord continually; it shall be an ordinance forever in your generations.” (OSB)
There is no “vacation” from the royal priesthood that God has bestowed on His people. This is the principle communicated to us through the image of “tending the lamps” here in Leviticus 24. All of Israel’s time is to be sanctified to God, as seen in the morning and evening sacrifices that frame Israel’s day (Exod 29:38ff), and in the tending of the lamps from evening to morning. There is to be no time in Israel’s life without remembrance of God, no time when Israel’s life is not being offered to God in prayer, especially during the darkness of sleep.
In the Church’s liturgical life, this is expressed in the Hours of Prayer which from a very early time came to structure the Church’s days, as adapted and transformed from Jewish practice. In On the Apostolic Tradition (PPS 54, pp. 200-210), St. Hippolytus of Rome (early 3rd century) recounts the tradition of praying six times a day: upon awakening, then at the 3rd Hour, the 6th Hour, and the 9th Hour, before bed, and at Midnight. In his Treatise on Prayer 6-7, St. Simeon of Thessalonike (early 15th century) recounts the sevenfold pattern of prayer that became customary, which is based on Psalm 118:164, “Seven times a day have I praised you.”
In both liturgical and personal terms, the Church is emphasizing to us the profound command of St. Paul: Pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17). That is, our whole life is to be one continual prayer to God, just as it is be one continual self-offering to God (Eph 5:2). Specific times of prayer, then, are to be concentrations and reminders of what all of our time is and should be. As Metr. Anthony Bloom said, “A prayer makes sense only if it is lived. Unless they are ‘lived’, unless life and prayer become completely interwoven, prayers become a sort of polite madrigal”—that is, a chanted poem—“which you offer to God at moments when you are giving time to Him” (Beginning to Pray, p. 59). To be sure, the life of prayer is one of continual effort, struggle, and growth. We must continually be asking of the Lord, “Teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1).
To pray is to take up our priestly role over own soul. We are all priests, like Aaron, called to tend the lamps of God’s holy dwelling that is our soul. We enter into our soul’s holy place to commune with God there, for it is there that Christ promises He will take up residence along with the Father (Jn 14:23). It is there where we are reminded of who we truly are, what our destiny is as God’s sons and daughters by grace if we will persist in faithful communion with God.
The tending of the lamps becomes an important symbol of watchfulness as well. We must not let the “dark night” of the world lull us to sleep such that we take on the pattern of the world by default. We must be sober and vigilant, keeping the Light of Christ burning within the house of our soul, expelling darkness within us so that we can be the light of the world set upon a hill (Matt 5:14-16). In Zechariah’s prophecy of the restoration of Israel and the Temple(Zech 4), the unfailing olive oil in the Lampstand comes to represent the Holy Spirit by which God’s people are infused with power so as to rebuild the walls and house of Zion, as it were (cf. Ps 50:20; 126:1). This is what we symbolize in the lamp that burns continually on our church altar!
By Reader Justin Gohl