One of the Oratory Fathers was recently approached by a guest at a local night shelter who announced that he had “a bone to pick.” When Father asked him what was up the guest replied: “That church of yours is freezing cold.” Father explained that, contrary to rumours that the lack of heating during the winter months has been due to misplaced parsimony on the part of the Provost, the Oratory’s boilers have finally reached the end of their life. The man at the night shelter became considerably less disgruntled when he heard that the inhabitants of Oratory House have been reduced to boiling kettles and pans of water for their daily ablutions while plans are made to install a new and more efficient system. “Sounds like we are all in the same boat then,” he said, “at least I can still thaw out my hands over the candles in front of that statue just inside the church door.”
Saint Anthony of Padua must heartily approve that the candles at his pricket stand are being put to such a practical use. As well as being one of the Church’s great miracle-workers and a “Hammer of Heretics”, St Anthony is a special patron of the disadvantaged. This is why, when he answers our prayers (especially for the restoration of lost keys, mobile telephones etc., but also for more serious requirements) we should reimburse him according to our means. All donations to St Anthony’s Bread are distributed to those in need. The banks of candles that we see blazing in front of his statue are a testimony to the faith of many Catholics in his intercessory power at the Throne of Grace. It is also fitting that their flames should occasionally lend warmth to the hands of those who have found themselves without the basic necessities of warmth and shelter.
It is hard to imagine the Catholic religion without candles. En route to her first Parliament on a bright January morning in 1559, Elizabeth I was received at the entrance to Westminster Abbey by the Abbot and community of the monastery which had recently been restored in the reign of her half-sister the good Queen Mary. The monks had come to greet their new monarch carrying flaming beeswax tapers. The new queen, whose every word and gesture were being scrutinized for signs of what to expect from the new regime, is said to have dismissed them briskly with the words “Away with those torches – we can see you well enough without them.” As the Italian saying goes, se non è vero, è ben trovato. What is indisputable is that the extinguishing of lights before statues, relics, altars and tabernacles that followed ushered in a new spiritual ice-age that did not really begin to thaw until our own Father Faber led the charge in fanning the devotional life of this country back to a golden blaze in the middle of the nineteenth century.
This month we celebrate Candlemas, the great Christian festival of light which marks the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem and the Purification of His Blessed Mother. The mystical significance of the Christ Child’s Presentation in the Temple was not lost on Simeon, the pious senior citizen who had been assured by the Holy Ghost that he would not die before setting eyes on ‘the Christ of the Lord’. Simeon’s Canticle, the Nunc Dimittis, is sung by the Church each night at Compline, and expresses all of the longing of the Old Testament for the universe-changing event which Simeon witnessed unfolding before him: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace … for mine eyes have seen thy salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” (Lk 2.29-32) At Candlemas we process with candles to celebrate this inextinguishable light that has come into the world. The faithful are encouraged to take their blessed candles home because these sacramentals bring us blessings and supernatural protection when we use them with devotion.
Ash Wednesday this year falls on 14th February, and throughout Lent we look forward to the lighting of the greatest candle of all, the Paschal Candle, which represents our Risen Lord Himself. The ocean of light that pours into every corner of the Church as the candles of the congregation are lit from the Paschal Candle at the beginning of the Easter Vigil fills the Christian heart with joy as we see how faith and hope have gained the definitive victory over sin and death. During the singing of the Exultet, the deacon praises the bees for producing the wax “to build a torch so precious”.
If the light of candles in church signifies the salvific illumination that comes with faith, the heat generated by their flames reminds us that our Catholic faith must always be enlivened by charity. Indeed, without charity, faith is cold and dead and cannot be pleasing to Almighty God. This is why the extra prayer and fasting that we undertake during Lent must be accompanied by almsgiving and/or other charitable works. And for these to be meritorious, we need to examine our consciences to make sure that we are living in charity with those around us. The Sacrament of Penance is a great help in this area of our spiritual lives, not only in gaining absolution for us when we have failed in charity, but also in securing for us the supernatural help we need to forgive and to love when this does not come easily.
If we can raise sufficient funds in time, it is hoped that the Oratory's new boilers will be installed during the summer months, in time to make the church more hospitable again next winter for worshippers and for anyone who comes in search of peace, shelter and warmth. Meanwhile, we should each of us be working on making our hearts a blazing furnace of charity.
Fr Julian Large