The most beautiful liturgy of the year is the Easter Vigil. It is lengthy, that is true. But how could it be otherwise? It spans the experience of God’s presence throughout human history, sweeping the worshiper from the conception of the created world through its redemption in the person of Jesus Christ. The experience of the Vigil helps us to make sense of this whole thing that we do as the body of Christ, our quest to understand the meaning of life, our purpose and our unbreakable connection to God.
It begins in darkness which is symbolically dispelled with the lighting of the new Paschal candle and the cantor’s recitation of the Exsultet, an extraordinary hymn announcing the meaning of Easter. With exquisite poetic imagery, the Exsultet retells of the story of God and humanity, of human sin and God’s infinite mercy and love for us. It is a hymn that draws redemption and grace and thanksgiving together in order to usher in the light so we can see, to take us from blindness to sight, to reveal that through the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection he has bridged the abyss between celestial and earthly realms, and reconciled us with God.
This is the night that careful listeners will also hear the mention of bees in the singing of the Exsultet, excerpted here:
“This is the night of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels all wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.”
In a talk given in 1948 to an assembly of Italian beekeepers Pope Pius the XII, using the most gorgeous and poignant language reflected on the virtues of bees.
“Bees are models of social life and activity, in which each class has its duty to perform and performs it exactly—one is almost tempted to say conscientiously—without envy, without rivalry, in the order and position assigned to each, with care and love. Even the most inexperienced observer of bee culture admires the delicacy and perfection of this work. Unlike the butterfly which flits from flower to flower out of pure caprice; unlike the wasp and the hornet, brutal aggressors, who seem intent on doing only harm with no benefit for anyone, the bee pierces to the very depths of the flower’s calix diligently, adroitly, and so delicately, that once its precious treasure has been gathered, it gently leaves the flowers without having injured in the least the light texture of their garments or caused a single one of their petals the loss of its immaculate freshness.
Then, loaded down with sweet-scented nectar, pollen, and propolis, without capricious gyrations, without lazy delays, swift as an arrow, with precise, unerring, certain flight, it returns to the hive, where valorous work goes on intensely to process the riches so carefully garnered, to produce the wax and the honey. (Virgil, , 4, 169.)
Ah, if men could and would listen to the lesson of the bees: if each one knew how to do his daily duty with order and love at the post assigned to him by Providence; if everyone knew how to enjoy, love, and use in the intimate harmony of the domestic hearth the little treasures accumulated away from home during his working day: if men, with delicacy, and to speak humanly, with elegance, and also, to speak as a Christian, with charity in their dealings with their fellow men, would only profit from the truth and the beauty conceived in their minds, from the nobility and goodness carried about in the intimate depths of their hearts, without offending by indiscretion and stupidity, without soiling the purity of their thought and their love, if they only knew how to assimilate without jealousy and pride the riches acquired by contact with their brothers and to develop them in their turn by reflection and the work of their own minds and hearts; if, in a word, they learned to do by intelligence and wisdom what bees do by instinct—how much better the world would be!”
“As for you, who while bending over your beehives perform with all care the most varied and delicate work for your bees, let your spirits rise in mystic flight to experience the kindness of God, to taste the sweetness of His word and His law (Ps. 18:11; 118: 103), to contemplate the divine light symbolized by the burning flame of the candle, product of the mother bee, as the Church sings in her admirable liturgy of Holy Saturday: (For it is nourished by the melting wax, which the mother bee produced for the substance of this precious light.)” —Pope Pius XII, November 27th, 1948
The Easter Vigil, The miracle of the resurrection, our joy, the springtime, the preponderance of agrarian symbolism throughout Scripture leads me to consider many things: the state of the world, the plight of bees, their endangerment, and the role of gardeners, including that small (or is it?) detail from John’s gospel when the risen Jesus appeared on Easter morning to Mary Magdelene, and she mistook him for a gardener [John 20:15].
And on and on.
During this Easter season, which really never ends, Christians need to ponder these things. And if you are able to, attend the Easter Vigil tonight and listen for the bees.
Happy Easter, sweet people.