The Light of the World in London
Celebrate Candlemas in Catholic England
One November afternoon, walking along from the Tate Gallery towards Borough High Street, I noticed that half of the Shard was missing. It is London’s tallest building — a vast, towering spike of glass and steel — but the whole of the top half was invisible, lost in a thick mist in the gathering darkness.
It was about 4pm, and, already, the lights in the restaurants along the Thames were throwing magical gleams onto the dark water, and the buses glowed in the splashy streets.
It all made me think of Candlemas, Feb. 2, also known as the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The period from the First Sunday of Advent up to Candlemas can be described as the “Nativity Cycle,” even though the Christmas season, properly speaking, ends with the Baptism of the Lord in January.
The Church reminds us that Christ is the “Light to enlighten the Gentiles,” and we hold candles as that Scripture is read aloud.
Long ago, Londoners used up their candle ends on this feast day: The old saying was: “Candlemas — candle-less”; the days were growing longer, and fewer candles were needed in the city’s households.
The city’s churches, Catholic and Anglican, will be holding Candlemas services. It was a practice that survived the Reformation: A proclamation by Henry VIII, “concernyng Rites and Ceremonies to be used in due fourme in the Churche of England,” states, “On Candlemas Daye, it shall be declared that the bearynge of candels is done in the memorie of Christe the spirituall lyghte, whom Simeon dyd prophecye as it is redde in the Churche that day.”
Along with many other customs, it had been popular for generation after generation; and it still draws hundreds of people to London’s churches.
Candlemas falls 40 days after Christmas because Christ was presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth. Numbers are very important in Scripture: Moses led the Israelites for 40 years in the desert, and Church seasons (Lent, Easter and Christmas) are all 40 days in duration.
There are sad links with Candlemas, however. After Henry VIII came Mary, England’s last Catholic reigning monarch — and then came the years when Catholicism was banned. It was on Candlemas Day in 1601 that the Catholic martyr Anne Line was arrested for having Mass celebrated in her house in London. People had noticed the unusual crowds gathering and guessed that something special was happening. The authorities broke in, and arrests were made while people were still holding their celebratory candles.
The priest, Father Francis Page, was able to escape — though he would be arrested elsewhere and die a martyr a year later — but Anne was taken to prison. There, she contracted a fever, and at her trial three weeks later, she was so ill that she had to be carried to court. Nevertheless, she gave a stalwart defense of her faith and announced that she only wished she could have harbored 1,000 more priests. She was hanged on Feb. 27, 1601, and is numbered among the 40 English and Welsh Martyrs canonized by Blessed Paul VI in 1970.
But, even in 2015, candles will glow, and people will celebrate Candlemas in all of London’s Catholic churches, from the huge ones like Westminster Cathedral and Brompton Oratory to the smaller ones like the Church of the Most Precious Blood near London Bridge — the church to which I was heading on that bleak November day at the start of winter.
Walking Along the Thames
This area on the south bank of the Thames is known as The Borough, to distinguish it from the City of London, to which it is connected by perhaps one of the most famous of the world’s bridges, celebrated in that famous song which ends with the words “My Fair Lady,” possibly a reference to Our Lady, who protected the Christian Saxons from the pagan Vikings in a battle at London Bridge in the 10th century.
London has history at every corner. Scholars have suggested that Shakespeare — who was certainly a Catholic sympathizer (if not a Catholic himself) — honors Anne Line in Cymbeline. The reconstructed Globe Theatre stands alongside the Thames near London Bridge, and nearby is the Anchor pub, where Shakespeare and the Globe’s actors refreshed themselves (and, yes, you can still go there for the same purpose).
The Tower of London stands further down the Thames from the Globe; it is, of course, the place where St. Thomas More and other English martyrs were imprisoned. More was lord chancellor of England, and so was executed on Tower Hill, just outside the Tower (as opposed to being dragged on a hurdle to the common execution site at Tyburn, on what was then London’s rural outskirts).
A stone now marks the place, listing the various prominent men executed there over the centuries. More’s last words — “The king’s good servant, but God’s first” — hold a message for today’s British Christians, who are facing pressures to conform to secular attitudes on abortion, same-sex “marriage” and other issues.
St. Thomas More is a saintly light among many in Britain, including St. Anne Line. There are modern Catholic churches dedicated to St. Anne in her home county of Essex (she and her husband, Roger, both came from prominent Essex families).
As the winter gloom lifts from London and the skyscrapers resume their domination in glittering glass and steel, the glowing candles and packed churches of Candlemas on a February evening remind us that the faith is alive and thriving in a city where this feast has been celebrated for centuries and centuries.
Jesus, Light of the World, illuminate our hearts and world!
Joanna Bogle writes from
London and is the host of
EWTN’s Walking Through Time: Catholic London.
- Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 2015