It has been ascertained that the cult of the virgin Tecla (the liturgical feast is on 24 September) dates back to the late 2nd century. She never hesitated to shed her blood for Christ the Lord. Many churches were built in her honour: the ancient Cathedral of Milan was dedicated to her.
The great Bishop Ambrose repeatedly proposed Tecla to consecrated virgins as a model of faith and of unwavering persevering love for the Redeemer. The name of this Martyr was recorded in ancient times in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Milanese liturgy.
One of the most suggestive rituals of the Ambrosian liturgy is performed at the Duomo, at the start of the Holy Chapter Mass, on the feast of the holy martyr Tecla, Patron Saint of the Cathedral’s Parish: the beacon ritual.
This custom certainly derives from an older tradition that probably dates back to the 7th century. In the Milanese setting it refers to the liturgy of the Duomo, at least up to the 12th century.
The ritual characterised some very important celebrations. When the procession entering the church reached the altar, the so-called pharus was lit, a sort of chandelier made up of a series of lamps arranged to form a crown with a cotton wool ring above it. This burning ring conveyed the flame to the individual lamps.
Scholars interpret this ancient ritual as purely functional (rapid lighting of the lamps almost all at once) and allegorical (image of the triumph and glory of the Martyrs, on whose feasts this ritual was celebrated), and some consider the lighting of the beacon an element that merely enhances the initial solemnity of the liturgical celebration on extraordinary days.
As time went by, the beacon was transformed from a crown of lamps into a globe of cotton wool hanging at the entrance to the presbytery. The priest lit it with three small lighted candles secured to the top of a rod, before climbing up to the altar at the end of the opening procession and of the traditional song of 12 Kyrie eléison. In this case, the ritual’s meaning refers to the Martyr’s sacrifice of her life.