Easter Vigil, 16 April 22
I’m not a huge fan of bees and the thought of keeping a beehive would fill me with alarm for fear of being stung. Someone once suggested I started keeping bees in the Vicarage Garden and I smiled politely but declined this kind suggestion. There is in our parish, of course, a pub called the Beehive. Although the current building is itself nearly a hundred years old, there has been apparently a pub called The Beehive much longer. Perhaps there once was an apiary there, behind the grand house owned by one Balthazar Sanchez who was a confectioner to the King centuries ago. (This grand house now being where Asda is). There are though local bees elsehwere, producing honey down on the marshes. Of old, it was quite common for there to be beehives kept both domestically and on church land in this country. Some monasteries continue the tradition, among them Buckfast Abbey in Devon.
Yes, I want to talk about bees after the beautiful reference in the Exsultet, the prayer with which we bless the Paschal Candle, which I sang earlier: “On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands.” The prayer makes a second reference later: ”it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.”
In the Temple in Jerusalem of old the lamps were oil based. The lights served a practical purpose, of course, but were also divinely ordained in Exodus 25:31-37. There were to be seven lamps on the lampstand described in this passage. Pagans have also always found significance and comfort from the light: we are not alone in this. The light used in Christian worship took on particular significance of course because Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,” (St John 8:12). At Easter this imagery is used when we think of St Peter, the chief Apostle. The Gospel writers describe him as being in the courtyard outside the High Priest’s quarters where he is recognised as one of Jesus’ followers and denied being such. As these words of betrayal come out of his mouth in the night air, he is warming himself by the fire (St John 18:18). A few days later we find Peter by a different fire (St John 21:9), one used to cook breakfast, and this time he is being asked by the Lord Himself, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” and Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (St John 21:15). If we hold the light of Christ up to our discipleship what does it look like?
But it is not just the light which provides the symbolism, it is the wax itself, as with the Pascal Candle. Oil candles aren’t really used in Church and certainly shouldn’t be used on altars for this reason. Bees were seen as being honourable because they worked hard for others, producing the wax and honey for humanity’s benefit, and a parallel was drawn with those who labour for others in our human society. I also think there is something in the symbolism that the wax is burnt up, offered entirely for God and for no other purpose. So also were the sacrifices of old to be, hence also Christ offers Himself entirely to the Father. So we are to be as well, not holding anything back of who we are or what we possess. It’s all to be offered to God.
There is a picture of a beehive in the stained glass windows in the north aisle, depicting St Ambrose, whose feast the Church celebrates on 7th December every year. Ambrose wrote many prayers we continue to use in the Church’s liturgy, among them the Te Deum, which is inside the booklets here tomorrow for Easter Sunday, a great song of praise: “We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord, all the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.” Anyway, Ambrose was known as the honey-tongued doctor because of his preaching, which had been foreshadowed, it is said, by a swarm of bees going in to his mouth when he was young. Doesn’t sound very pleasant!
My friends, what good news we have with the Resurrection of Jesus! We might be excited about being full of sweeties now Lent is over, but we should also think about what sweetness can come from our lips! What honey can we give through the things we say?We mustn’t confuse kindness with empty phrases, like oozing with insincerity and saying “How are you?” when you actually don’t really care. Kindness can only be real if it is backed up with truth. Kindness flowing from our lips will also mean we have words to speak of what God does for us; our favourite passages of Scripture; the peace we know when we gather for Mass; the fellowship of those reborn in the waters of the one font and proclaiming the one faith. Let all this beauty flow from us and we will indeed be like bees producing honey, to the praise of our risen Lord.