In 2011, some of the ancient imagery of the Easter vigil was restored to the liturgy.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands…
Why mention bees? It is axiomatic in Christian theology that creation and redemption cannot be separated, and in the Easter vigil liturgy those small creatures, the bees, have a role in the liturgical drama of salvation by reminding us with images of that link. Saint Paul, for example, uses images of creation and recreation to signal the effect of the resurrection. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5: 16-17).
John’s gospel also uses the connection between creation and redemption. The Prologue recalls the poem of creation in Genesis 1: in the very beginning, God created light. And in that same eternal beginning was God’s creative Word, who becomes flesh. The light of Easter, coming from the candle, reminds us of the light of creation and our need to be a new creation.
The language of the liturgy is not (or should not be) didactic or abstract. Its symbolism functions not only to inform but to move us through an appeal to our imagination and affections. In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) John Henry Newman distinguished between notional and real assents and observed that in real assents the mind “is directed towards things [rather than mental creations or notions], represented by the impressions which they have left on the imagination. These images, when assented to, have an influence both on the individual and society, which mere notions cannot exert.”
It was a mistake to remove the bees from the Easter vigil. Small they may be, but the mother bees create the wax for the pillar of fire that lights the way out of darkness and into the light of the Morning Star.That same pillar is dipped into the baptismal waters when we welcome catechumens on the path of faith. The imagery of re-creation is difficult to miss.
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…
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets…
David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.