Bees were much appreciated by ancient Church teachers. St. John Chrysostom, who was known as the “mellifluous” teacher ( Latin: “mel”, honey), admired bees for their selflessness: “The bee is more honored than other animals,” he wrote, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others” (12th Homily).
Bees were important to the 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan, who baptized Augustine and whose name means “sweet food” (Latin: “ambrosia”). He often referred to the gathering of pollen and the production of honey as emblems of Christian formation—the Church’s teachers gather the pollen of Scripture to explain the great mysteries of the faith and feed Christ’s people the honey of Divine Truth. For Ambrose, bees were a symbol of wisdom.
Ambrose was also known as a “honey-tongued” preacher and teacher. (Later, St Bernard would also earn this sobriquet.) This tag refers to his eloquence and persuasiveness, as well as to his fondness for singing in church. Legend has it that honey bees lighted on his face when he was an infant and left a drop of honey on his lips, foreshadowing his future eloquence. Bees and honeycombs were included in the early iconography of Ambrose. Not surprisingly, he is the patron saint of beekeepers and honey manufacturers.
At the start of the Great Vigil of Easter, a deacon sings the Easter Proclamation, often referred to by its Latin first word, exsultet—exult, or rejoice! It is a chant sung by the light of new fire, the Paschal candle, praising the God of light for the new dawn of Christ’s resurrection. In several ancient versions of this song, bees received a grateful shout-out.
The praise of bees is no longer included in modern versions of this old song, including versions used in the Protestant re-appropriation of the Vigil. And that’s a shame. The bees deserve thanks for their industry and for the sweet products of their work, all of which God uses to serve human need and enliven the creation. What better night to include these creatures in our praise than on the night when God brings forth a new creation through the resurrection of Jesus?
Here is the excised excerpt from the Exsultet: …
“… In the grace of this night, O Eternal God,
receive as an evening sacrifice this burning light,
which holy Church renders to you
in the solemn offering of this candle of wax, made by the bees.
We know the glory of this candle kindled by God’s bright flame.
Though divided, it is not dimmed, for it is fed from the wax
which the mother bee wrought to make this precious lamp…”