Let us Remember, the Church is Necessary for Salvation
By Fr. Robert Fromageot, FSSP, Feast of Candlemas
At the beginning of the Candlemas liturgy, the faithful receive their candles from the hands of the priest, the choir sings as often as necessary the Canticle of St. Simeon, and use the following appointed text for the antiphon (or refrain): Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. The same text is intentionally alluded to in the first sentence of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen gentium cum sit Christus…” — “Since Christ is the light of nations…”), so that the document could be entitled Lumen Gentium. Christ indeed is the light of the world, and anyone who follows Him “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (Jn. 8:12). As we shall see, what is stated in this conciliar document is given liturgical expression in the feast of Candlemas.
So, Christ (the Messiah) is the Light of the world and our glory. For as faithful Catholics, we have been “grafted into the good olive tree” (Rom. 11:24) of Israel through our faith in Christ our Redeemer. But the opening sentence of Lumen Gentium directs our attention to the consequence of this truth: “Since Christ is the Light of the world, this Sacred Synod, gathered together in the Holy Spirit, eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men [emphasis mine], a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.” With this goal of evangelization in mind, the Council fathers desire “now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.” In other words, understanding the nature and role of the Church is intimately linked to evangelization: Bringing the light of Christ to all men entails bringing them into the Church. The reason is that “[God] planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ.” Accordingly, “full unity in Christ” is achieved only through the Church of Christ, which is none other than the Catholic Church. Thus, the Church of Christ, established on Peter, is not an extraneous or superfluous part of God’s plan of salvation. On the contrary, it is an essential component of His plan.
In §14, Lumen Gentium states categorically: “Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this sacred Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, cannot be saved.”
The next paragraph (§2) briefly summarizes God’s plan of creation, salvation, and history. It describes our own time in history as follows: “In the present era of time the Church was constituted and, by the outpouring of the Spirit [emphasis mine], was made manifest. At the end of time it will gloriously achieve completion, when, as is read in the [Church] Fathers, all the just, from Adam and ‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect’ [Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospels], will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church.”
This outpouring of the Spirit took place fifty days after the Resurrection, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. On that day the Holy Spirit fell upon the whole Church gathered in the upper room. Naturally, we commemorate this watershed event on Pentecost Sunday. But today, as we approach the end of the tempus “per annum” (literally, the time through the year) that began after Pentecost, the Feast of Candlemas — as celebrated in the usus antiquior (a.k.a., Extraordinary Form) — complements the Feast of Pentecost as one bookend complements another. Thus, it gives liturgical expression to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts and, with God’s grace, our own presentation in the “holy temple of God’s glory” and the consummation of history, when the universal Church and the Church Triumphant will be one and the same.
More precisely, Candlemas accomplishes this with four of the five prayers used to bless the candles and the use of these blessed candles at special moments during the Mass. Taking up the blessing prayers, let us review how in various ways they associate the light of these candles with the operation of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Prayer 2: the flame of the candle is linked to the fire of the Holy Spirit, that “being worthily inflamed with the holy fire of Thy most sweet charity, we may deserve to be presented in the holy temple of Thy glory” — the Church Triumphant and eventually “the universal Church.”
Prayer 3: as candlelight dispels the darkness of the night, so we pray that “our hearts, illumined by invisible fire (that is by the splendor of the Holy Spirit), may be free from the blindness of all vice.” And with the “eye of our mind having been cleansed,” we pray that we “may be able to discern what is pleasing to [God] and profitable to our salvation; so that after the perilous darkness of this life, we may deserve to attain to never-failing light.”
Put another way, vice and other dark perils are incompatible with the light of Christ dwelling within us and will prevent our attaining eternal life, where the darkness of sin does not exist. In the words of Lumen Gentium, though “the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation”, he “is not saved…who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’ All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”
Prayer 4: as the candles provide us with outward light, we pray that “the interior light of the Holy Spirit may never be wanting to our minds.”
Prayer 5: as Simeon, illumined by the light of the Holy Spirit, recognized Christ when He was presented in the temple, we pray to be so enlightened and taught by the same Holy Spirit that we too may likewise truly acknowledge and faithfully love the Lord Jesus.
As to the use of candles, before Mass we process with them because we are called to walk in the light of life — in “newness of life”. During the Mass, we also hold them when the gospel is sung — the Evangelium; i.e., Good News, or Gospel, because the Gospel bears witness to Christ our Light, who is the fullness of divine revelation, the “heir of all things, by whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1). Finally, we hold them from the Sanctus through the Canon, since the Spirit bears witness to Christ (Jn. 15:26) our paschal sacrifice. Moreover, an older rubric directed that the candles be held even when receiving Holy Communion, since the Holy Spirits seeks to unite us to one another through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, who is wholly contained (i.e., with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity) under the sacramental species of bread and wine. But given the implicit danger involved, it is understandable that the current rubric should favor the pragmatic over the significant.
Let us strive to make these prayers our own, that the fire of the Holy Spirit may always be enkindled within our hearts, so that we may always thrive as living members of His Body. In this way, may we ourselves, by word and example, reflect Christ our glory, revealing and attracting others to the Light of the World so that, in accordance with God’s eternal plan, they too may share in the divine life and enjoy full Catholic unity — here on earth and forever in heaven.