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Vigil Lamps

Why are Vigil Lamps lit before Icons?
First - because our faith is light. Christ said "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). The light of the vigil lamp reminds us of that light by which Christ illumines our souls.
Second - in order to remind us of the radiant character of the saint before whose icon we light the vigil lamp, for saints are called "sons of light" (John 12:26, Luke 16:8).
Third - in order to serve as a reproach to us for our dark deeds, for our evil thoughts and desires, and in order to call us to the path of evangelical light; and so that we would more zealously try to fulfill the commandments of the Savior: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works" (Matthew 5:16).
Fourth - so that the vigil lamp would be our small sacrifice to God, Who gave Himself completely as a sacrifice for us, and as a small sign of our great gratitude and radiant love for Him from Whom we ask in prayer for life, and health, and salvation, and everything that only boundless heavenly love can bestow.
Fifth - so that terror would strike the evil powers that sometimes assail us even at the time of prayer and lead away our thoughts from the Creator. The evil powers love the darkness and tremble at every light, especially at that which belongs to God and those who please Him.
Sixth - so that this light would rouse us to selflessness. Just as the oil and wick burn in the vigil lamp, submissive to our will, so let our souls also burn with the flame of love in all our sufferings, always being submissive to God's will.
Seventh - in order to teach us that just as a vigil lamp cannot be lit without our hand, so too, our heart, our inward vigil lamp, cannot be lit without the holy fire of God's grace, even if it were to be filled with all the virtues. All these virtues of ours, after all, (are only) like combustible material, but the fire which ignites them proceeds from God.
Eighth - in order to remind us that before anything else the Creator of the world created light, and after that everything else in order: "And God said, let there be light; and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). And it must be so also at the beginning of our spiritual life, so that before anything else, the light of Christ's truth would shine within us. From this light of Christ's truth subsequently every good deed is created, springs up in us and grows in us.
May the Light of Christ illumine you as well!

There are a number of different kinds of utensils designed for burning oil before icons. A very common one is the wick-float which utilizes cork to keep the wick and flame floating on the oil. The burning of oil before icons, its care and practice is described below:

1. The Glass. Any low, wide-mouth glass may be used for the lamp. Once used for this, however, the glass should not be reused for any other purpose. In Greece, most of the lamps are of clear glass, but colors such as red, blue or milk-colored are also used (it is advisable to use a large enough glass so that the oil will last at least 10 to 12 hours).
2. The Oil. The use of olive oil for the lamps is a tradition which we have received even from the time of our father Moses. The olive oil will burn best if left open and allowed to age (or even become rancid).
3. The Wick. To make a wick, use cotton string about one foot in length. Do not use coated or waxed string. Cotton string of about 6 ply will be thick enough. If the wick is soaked in vinegar it will burn brighter and cleaner. If this is done, the wick should be allowed to dry thoroughly before being used. Also, remember that wicks may be obtained in many Orthodox stores, churches or web sites.
4. The Flame. The fathers of the Holy Mountain (Athos) have taught us to use a very low flame which they call apathes, passionless. The flame should burn steadily, not flickering. The lamp will burn six to twelve hours, depending mainly on the oil, but also on the size of the flame, the weather, etc. Before relighting the lamp, remove the excess carbon from the wick and twist the string slightly to shape the wick into a point (candle wax may be used to make a firm point for ease in "threading" the wick; it should be trimmed off before lighting).
5. Cleaning. The napkin or tissue used to wipe the carbon and oil from the fingers should be burned in a separate place (the home censer is the best place) and not just thrown into the garbage. Be careful not to drip or spill the oil when lighting the lamp (St. Theodore of Studion imposed a canon of thirty prostrations on the church ecclesiarch who spills oil from the icon lamps). The glass should be washed periodically, and the oil replaced anew. The water in which the lamp is washed, as well as the old oil from the icon lamp, should not be poured down the drain. It is best, rather, to pour it under plants or trees, or an area that is not walked upon.

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OFFSITE: Why Are Vigil Lamps Lit Before Icons? - Original article by St. Nikolai Velimirovic.
OFFSITE: Marriage and the Christian Home - The original, unaltered article, by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos.