On 2nd February we celebrate a great Christian festival of light – the Feast of Candlemas. A shimmering sea of flames flows into the church as we commemorate the entry of the infant Jesus into the Temple at His Presentation. We rejoice with Simeon that the Light to enlighten the gentiles and the Glory of God’s People Israel has come into this world never to be extinguished. (cf. Lk 2.22-32)
Light is something that human beings have always treasured as desirable and precious. In our own day, however, it often seems that there is a conflict between different sources of light. And this has really been the case since that revolution in thought and culture that occurred in the eighteenth century, generally known as the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers championed the supremacy of reason over everything else. Their aim was to chase away the shadows, so that the undiluted light of human reason might be allowed to flood into every aspect of human life and society. In its extreme form, the Enlightenment sought to banish all mystery and transcendence to the graveyard of ignorance and superstition. The end result of this has not been so much real enlightenment, but, as one venerable English philosopher has described it, a severe light pollution that prevents man from seeing the stars.
Many of our contemporaries have been taken in by the idea that reason and Faith must ultimately be opposed to each other, or at best unrelated. They assume that to embrace Faith must mean that we have to jettison our reason. Perhaps we have to admit that, looking at how strangely religious people sometimes behave, and how ill-equipped we often are to give a coherent account for our beliefs, it is hardly surprising that this misunderstanding prevails.
As far as the Church is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth than this apparent conflict between these two lights of Faith and reason. The Church rejoices in reason. She teaches that man’s God-given intellect is the highest part of his nature, and that man’s natural capacity to discern and communicate truth and consciously to unite himself with what is good illustrate how the Creator’s image is stamped indelibly on our souls.
We also have to accept that reason on its own, and science on its own, can never answer the deepest longings of the human heart or the desire of the human mind for knowledge. We cannot ultimately find redemption in science or reason. Unaided reason can never carry us to the sublime height for which we were created – to be happy with God for ever in eternity. Science can never make us immortal.
Faith is that supernatural gift from God that elevates our reason. It is very important to understand that Faith does not suppress or replace reason. When we embrace the gift of Faith, it is like walking into a lift and finding ourselves carried up to a new realm of knowledge and life, because through this gift of Faith, we are now able to engage our reason with divinely revealed truths.
If the secularist Enlightenment ended up producing light-pollution that obliterated the stars, then the true enlightenment that comes with Faith in Our Lord brings those stars back into focus. It allows us to penetrate into that realm of mystery in which man finds perfect and supernatural fulfilment – the Mystery of the Divine Love that flows continually between Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It makes us value our neighbour, whoever he or she might be and wherever he or she might come from, as a being created in God’s image with a supernatural vocation to be incorporated into Our Lord’s Mystical Body and to participate with us in the life of the Blessed Trinity in eternity.
The light of reason and the light of faith, then, are not in opposition at all. In fact, it would be impossible for them ever to be in conflict. This is because they both have the same source – the Eternal Word, or Logos, Who took on our human flesh and came to us as the Light of the World. He is ultimately the author of all truth, scientific and religious, philosophical and theological. The Child Whom Mary carries into the Temple on the occasion of Her Purification is Truth itself.
On the feast of Candlemas, let us pray that the Light Who enlightens the Gentiles and the Glory of God’s people Israel will fill our hearts with light so that in our dark and fragmented society we may bear radiant witness to God’s love. The light of Faith tells us that the real value of our fellow human beings is not relative to success, health, youthfulness or productivity. It is to be found in that potential for eternal life with which God has endowed each and every human soul. Simeon and the prophetess Anna, who each praise God at the arrival of the Christ Child in the Temple, are both greatly advanced in age. They remind us to have a very special care and solicitude for the frail and the elderly, and to treasure their role in the life of the Church.
Candlemas is not a day of obligation, but please make an effort to come to the High Mass and receive a blessed candle. Take this precious sacramental home so that it may bring protection and inspiration to you and your loved ones during the coming year.
Fr Julian Large