Brass Tacks: Minding Our Own Beeswax

My very favorite Catholic Liturgy is the opening of the Easter Vigil service and the lighting of the paschal candle. Taking place in black night outside the church, it is a moment of absolute transformation: from darkness to light, from emptiness to fullness, from death to life. A fire burns in a brazier, but it is pagan fire, unredeemed, and inside the dimmed church is water, inert and unblessed. With that fire, the priest tips the wick of the tall waxen candle, which is Christ.

The priest then carries the paschal candle into the church to the place near the altar where the water is, the water that will soon be sanctified as baptismal water. A cantor sings an ancient hymn called the Exultet (after the first word in its original Latin) that links the redemption of humankind to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt: “This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death.”

This part of the Easter Vigil is one of the Church’s oldest rituals, dating back to at least the fourth century and undergoing only minimal revisions after the Second Vatican Council. It is well worth suffering through Lent to experience it. Everything is there— everything, it turns out, except the bees.

The bees? What? Bees in the Easter Mass? I learned about the bees only a few months ago, from a friend, Richard Starr, managing editor of the Weekly Standard. I did some digging in old and new missals and discovered that, sure enough, the Latin version of the Exultet, but not its English translation, contains two references to the tiny creatures that made the wax for the paschal candle.

In one, the candle itself is described as “the work of bees” (de operibus apum). The other points out that without the bees there would be no Easter light: “For it is nourished by the melting wax that the mother bee brought forth to be the substance of this precious candle” (Alitur enim liquantibus ceris quas in substantiam pretiosae huius lampadis apis mater eduxit). (Rev. James Watkins of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., helped me locate the Latin passages, and Charles R. Beye, classics professor emeritus at the City University of New York, checked my translations.) Even the abridged Latin version of the Exultet designed for shorter services eliminates the tribute to the mother bee but retains the core reference to “the work of bees.” But when the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) made its official translation of the Exultet during the early 1970s, it applied the Raid canister to both versions.

For centuries, the Easter bees were a cherished part of Catholic liturgical life. During the Middle Ages, the Exultet was read from a parchment scroll that hung in the church sanctuary. The Exultet rolls, as they were called, were almost always illustrated with paintings of stripe-jacketed honeybees pollinating the flowers of the tree of life or swarming from towering apiaries. (For Web images of medieval Exultet rolls, with a commentary by Carol Zaleski, a religion professor at Smith College, visit

ICEL has a tradition of flattening out liturgical language in unappealing ways (remember the “feedbox” that it wanted to swap for the manger in the children’s Christmas Mass?), but its decision to spray insecticide on the Easter bees seems gratuitously cruel. Perhaps the idea was that suburbanized, English-speaking Catholics, generations removed from rural life, wouldn’t realize—duh—that bees make wax.

The 1970s were the heyday of liturgical functionalism, and some avant-garde ICEL translator must have decided that the Exultet bees were superfluous frippery. The problem is that the up-to-date very quickly becomes the out-of-date. The minimalist ICEL texts that might have seemed so relevant back then now seem inadequate, even to the concerns of progressives. The wildlife-protection and save-the-farmland movements have renewed a sense of the sacredness of the natural world that the imagery of the bees feeds right into. The Exultet bees, reflecting a deeply and antiquely Christian love of nature, remind us that environmentalism and the notion of stewardship over creation need not be antithetical concepts.

Furthermore, the praise of the bees in the Exultet is inexhaustibly rich in poetic and theological meaning. The drama of the Easter Vigil lies in the contrast between the created world, unsanctified and therefore dead, and Christ, who by His death and resurrection, redeems that world and brings it to life. The bees are the symbolic link between dead creation—the unblessed fire and water and new life.

The “mother bee,” symbolically bringing forth the new life of Christ and with her wax “nourishing” the flame of the paschal candle, is also a powerful maternal image of God that ought to thrill feminists. In fact, the Exultet uses the very same Latin verb, educere (to bring forth), to refer to God’s deliverance of Israel in the Passover.

Even the tin-eared liturgists who work for ICEL concede that there was “a loss—not, perhaps of intelligibility, but of allusiveness” in writing the bees out of the Easter Vigil, as ICEL’s Exultet specialist, Nathan Mitchell, associate director of the Center for Pastoral Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, told me. That’s pure nostalgia, though; don’t count on bees buzzing back to the church door anytime soon unless you attend a service in Latin. The latest draft translation of the ICEL Easter liturgy, in which Mitchell had a hand, continues to keep the Exultet bees firmly in their hives.


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