Where are the Bees?

by Carol Zaleski

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from a medeival "Exultet roll" almost all of which have an illustration of "the bees"

...Along with "useless repetitions," the reform of the liturgy has sought to diminish distracting superfluities. This was, perhaps, not difficult to accomplish. It is relatively easy to screen out superfluous passages; any competent copy editor can do so. But while it is easy to analyze and change the text of a ritual, it is difficult and risky to re-conceive the complete world it was intended to invoke.

The liturgy of the Mass is less like words than like worlds. It is not a text to read for information but a place to enter for transformation. Like the magical paintings in the Mary Poppins book and in C.S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the liturgy is never mere representation; it is entrance and ascent, a tirtha for crossing over, a spatial and temporal iconostasis that is a threshold of the heavenly kingdom and the life of the world to come. As is characteristic of entrances to the other world (I think. for example, of the medieval Purgatory of St. Patrick), it appears small and confined from without, but for those who enter, it opens onto endless vistas.

The liturgy is rather like one of those computer fantasy quest games, in which the hero must collect weapons, supplies and treasures, and avoid deadly dangers, and in which the key to survival is never to discount any object, however seemingly insignificant, that crosses one's path. If you kick a coin, pick it up, read its legend. If a troll hiccups, offer him a drink. If a leaf falls, look for its source. If an instruction is repeated three times, remember it three times. Never dismiss anything as superfluous; never disregard the  literal words of a message, even if you think you know its underlying meaning. Never assume that an object is merely functional. Keep your mind open and your senses alert, and keep reinterpreting what you have already seen in light of the unfolding narrative.

A time when these lessons apply with special intensity is the Easter Vigil, the restoration of which was one of the great accomplishments of the pontificate of Pius XII. We possess the Easter Vigil in all its splendor in the reformed rite. But one day, prompted by a vigilant friend, I compared the official English liturgical translation of the Exsultet - the Easter Proclamation-to the normative Latin text.

We come to the great blessing of "the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death." The Paschal candle is offered, reprising the Passover pillar of fire; it is the burnt-offering that partakes of Christ's self-offering on the Cross; and it is the light of Christ undiminished by being spread abroad to scatter the darkness of sin and death.

One would expect that the translators of this great hymn would want to communicate its entire substance. But in the English column, there are conspicuous blank spaces. What was left out? An enchanting digression, paying homage to the bees who produced the wax for Paschal candle. I italicize omitted passages:

"Therefore, in the grace of this night, receive, holy Father, this evening sacrifice of praise, which most holy Church renders to you in this solemn offering of wax, through the hands of the ministers from the works of the bees.

Now we behold the splendors [praeconia] of this pillar, which the glowing fire enkindles in honor of God. Which, although divided into parts, suffers no loss from its light being shared. For it is nourished by the melting wax, which the mother bee brought forth into the substance of this precious lamp."

Just when the Exsultet reaches its most exalted pitch of praise, commemorating theexultetbees1.jpg (34271 bytes) mighty acts of creation and redemption, we stop to thank the bee for the wax. We do not even thank God for the bee. We contemplate beeswax, a peculiar substance that seems to possess two natures: animal and insensate thing, quick and dead, quickened again by fire, and quickened supernaturally by the flame of the resurrection. A great chain of being reaches down through the Exsultet, from angel to human to animal and even to matter itself.

An image of the bees from a medieval "Exultet roll"

Where are the bees in today's Easter Vigil? Were they omitted because few parishes can afford genuine beeswax? Or was it a reluctance to let the mother bee play a mediatrix role in the uniting of things divine and human--or worse, a co-creatrix role in the making of wax for the Paschal fire? A fear of multiplying intermediaries, of making the Paschal candle the object of magical veneration, of confusing the opus Dei with the opus apum, deprives us of the extraordinary catechetical power and dogmatic precision of this hymn, which teaches the lessons of Chalcedon and recapitulates redemption history by means of a bee.

exultbees2.jpg (23396 bytes)In such superfluities, preserved by the wise bees of tradition, we may find the key to a sacramental understanding from which, in our current state of cultural diaspora, we have felt locked out. We may follow the mother bee back from our Babylonian captivity, her golden honey thread may lead us through the labyrinth of modernity to Jerusalem's gate.

Perhaps I exaggerate the sacramental significance of the bee. My point is only to ask whether or not we have been well served in this case by noble simplicity. Liturgical minimalism does more than exile some industrious bees; it drives a wedge between the interests of personal devotion and the interests of public worship.

It is undoubtedly true that preconciliar public worship was in danger of fragmenting into multiple disconnected exercises of private piety, whose objectives veered off from the central aim of the liturgy. As Cheslyn Jones points out, this is what marks periods of liturgical degeneration: "the use of the liturgy as a framework for purely musical composition, or as an occasion for reciting the rosary, or for mental prayer whether under the guidance of meditations on the life of Christ or on the incidents of his passion, as in medieval manuals of devotion for layfolk, or by the use of their more sophisticated modern equivalents."

I have to admit, however, that I would not mind witnessing some of this liturgical degeneration in my parish on Sundays. A truly corporate worship would be capable of tolerating special acts of personal devotion in its midst and would be open to being enriched by them. I will take my seat next to the old lady with her rosary beads, and not regret the fact that she is silent during the congregational hymn-singing and scarcely conscious of the moments of prescribed...

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From another medieval "Exultet roll"

From Antiphon, Volume Four, Number One
reprinted here with permission of The Society for Catholic Liturgy

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