One of the most terrifying scenes in cinematic history, at least in my mind, is in the movie Becket: the epic and solemn excommunication of Lord Gilbert by St. Thomas Becket (played by Richard Burton), complete with black-cowled monks chanting the Dies Irae.
We do here and now separate him from the precious Body and Blood of Christ, and from the society of all Christians… We exclude him from our holy mother Church and all her sacraments… We cast him into the outer darkness.
All the monks and the Archbishop bear large, lit candles in their hands. After Becket has uttered the decisive formula, he swiftly turns his candle upside-down, smothers its flame into the cold hard floor, and lets the candle fall to the ground. A moment later, the monks follow suit and say, “So be it.” Truly, this is a fate worse than death.
But what makes this scene so terrifying? The words do, certainly, the chant calling to mind the “Day of Wrath.” But isn’t the smothering of the flickering light the moment when you shudder? What power, then, has this smothering to strike such fear in the heart of a Christian?
Of course, we return to our baptism, where we received the symbolic baptismal candle, the light of Christ which then became present in our fragile bodies.
We also recall the green electric “candle” which beckons us into the confessional where our cold and black wicks may be lighted with his presence once more, and we pray to him, For thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my God will enlighten my darkness (Ps 18:28).
Some of us recall the awesome power borne in our hands as an altar boy, given the grave task of lighting the candles around the altar. Also, sitting in the pew and imagining the foolish virgins who are left in darkness, while the wise virgins with lighted lamps feast with the bridegroom and bride, causes even our straight and polished American teeth to gnash and our cardio-trained hearts to wail.
Another flame, and to me the most moving, hangs near every tabernacle and tells the visitor, “You are not alone.” This lamp turns a public building where I may or may not feel welcome into a dwelling whose warm hearth and sacred Presence gently remind me that here I am home. But without this candle, the whole cosmos is not a home, but a holding cell.
All these lights show that Christ is present in a particular way. But what sign is there for others to know that where we are, there he is? Do you know the feeling of going into a church and having to search for the sanctuary lamp, to know if the Real Presence of Jesus is there? Do you also know the feeling of being in a grand place dedicated to the True God, but realize that the lamp of life is nowhere to be found, and thus feel a certain emptiness, even in the midst of human grandeur?
If you do know this feeling, then imagine what it is like for someone who, whether Christian or not, is searching for the Divine, but walks right past a living, breathing temple of his presence, and cannot seem to find the lamp. We know as Christians that God is calling all people to return to him, even if many don’t know it. We could carry a sign or put a candle on our head to show them, but is it not more effective to manifest God’s presence with the light of works of charity? The recent pontiffs have reminded us of the light that is faith. We read in Lumen Fidei, “Precisely because it is linked to love (cf. Gal 5:6), the light of faith is concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace.” And as St. James (2:17) says, faith without works is dead.
The burning flame of charity shows the presence of the God who is charity more clearly than even the most pithy t-shirt or witty article. This charity warms the wayfaring heart and calms the savage sinner. If a shameful soul should snuff the shining sign of salvation, so be it. But our charity, which alone abides with faith and hope, is there to cajole the hard-hearted; it is a moment of grace, a lighthouse to those who are in danger.
May the light of Christ, which we bear, shine so brightly that no one may mistake what presence dwells in the temple of our bodies. Jesus is the light of revelation to all the nations, and he has chosen us to continue his revelation—even to those most hard-hearted of nations who dwell not in the far-flung corners of the earth, but in the home and office near us.
In the end, our candle will no longer be necessary. But will that be because, like Lord Gilbert, the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee (Rev 18:23)? Or will it be because, like St. Thomas Becket, we dwell where there shall be no night … ; and [where] they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever (Rev 22:5).
Image: Henryk Siemiradzki, Nero’s Torches (Leading Light of Christianity)