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Faith as true enlightenment

In his final Easter Vigil homily as head of the Catholic Church, given on 7 April 2012, Benedict XVI makes an almost incidental reference to the activity of bees. It’s an image rich with symbolic meaning.


by Professor Michaela C. Hastetter

Portrait of Professor Michaela C. Hastetter

During the final Easter Vigil of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, something very small managed to slip into the Pope’s homily: the bee, a tiny creature that has been blessed with tremendous importance. The homily begins with the classic comparison between Easter as the feast of the new creation and the creation of light in the first creation account in Genesis, to which Pope Benedict adds three questions which he then explores: What is the creation of light trying to tell us? How is this to become reality for us? And why is the light of Christ the true light for us?

All the very end, when it seems the homily is over, Pope Benedict starts speaking again, tying the symbolic use of light in the Resurrection of Christ to the symbol of the Paschal candle from the Exsultet at the beginning of the liturgy. This ancient hymn of the Church sung at the Easter Vigil mentions not only light, but also the work of bees: “For it [the flame] is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees, to build a torch so precious.”

Pope Benedict XVI carries a candle at the start of the liturgy. Celebration of the Easter Vigil with Pope Benedict XVI on the evening of 7 April 2012 at St. Peter’s, including the baptism of eight adults.

Letting the light of Christ shine upon the world

To Benedict XVI, this allusion to the hard work of the bees shows how in the Paschal candle, the whole of Creation is taken into the liturgy and “becomes a bearer of light.” In addition to this cosmic dimension of the work of the bees, Benedict XVI sees yet another aspect, which he draws from the theology of the Church Fathers, even if he mention any particular author by name. Like the Fathers, he also sees in the product of many bees working together a “silent reference to the Church”.

What does this mean? Here is how he puts it: “The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.”

A crucial point of reference for overcoming division

This observation about bees is an interpretation that I have personally come to find great meaning in, especially as it pertains to Christian unity. Thus, I started to see the “silent reference” to bees working together as the crucial spiritual point of reference for the importance of cooperation between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in a single, vibrant community, and idea that took on concrete form in 2017 with the opening of the John of Damascus House of Studies in Vienna.

Like the bees, we are to work together in unity, and in doing so, overcome divisions. And a community that is held together internally by the light of Christ also has the strength to carry this living light of Christ out into the world. In his Easter homily, it is this passing on of the light that Pope Benedict regards as the true mission of the baptized.

Pope Benedict XVI holds a candle during the liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Our high-tech world is immersed in a darkness that blocks out God and obscures values, threatening human existence – indeed, even the world itself.

For our high-tech world is immersed in a darkness that blocks out God and obscures values, threatening human existence – indeed, even the world itself. In an age where electric lights have eclipsed the glow of the stars, we have become so enlightened that there is no room for God. It is for this reason that Pope Benedict sees faith, “which reveals God’s light to us, is the true enlightenment,” as that which enables “God’s light to break into our world, opening our eyes to the true light.”

For his interpretation of the bees in his Easter Vigil homily as symbolizing the baptized working together in the Church, Benedict XVI took a lesson from the Church Fathers. I recently came across two such observations with regard to bees in the writings of the Fathers. In his Homilies on the Song of Songs, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes that we are to do as the bees do, flying to “the grassy meadow of the inspired word” (that is, Sacred Scripture), and in this way, “make oneself into a honeycomb, storing the fruit of this labor in one’s heart as in some beehive” (Homily IX). It is a beautiful image in which St. Gregory compares the zeal with which the bees approach their work to our own zeal in reading Scripture, in which we are to keeps the words of Jesus in our memory as in the chambers of a beehive, or indeed “the hollow cells in a honeycomb”.

Pope Benedict XVI during the Easter Vigil liturgy, wearing a miter and holding a golden cross in his hand

Interpretations from the Church Fathers

I discovered a second observation on bees in the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, the patron of our recently established STEP Center for Orient&Occident Studies. Much like Pope Benedict, St. Ephrem also comes to the bee in a hymn on the resurrection, seeing in it a symbol for Creation as well as for the Church:

“Even the weak-winged bee comes forth full of zeal in the month of blossoms. – Consider this weakest of all creatures, and be fervent following her example. [...] For she gains profit from every blossom – and her hidden, despised treasure – open it and see the miracle of her work – how she has built and how she has filled. Praised be her creator.”

“The sweetness is scattered; it is gathered by the mouth of this most pure creature. A mirror for the Church: – From Scripture she gathers the sweetness of the Holy Spirit.” (Hymns on the Resurrection IV, 6-7)

While the image of the bee for the Church Fathers is characterized more by the idea of collecting nectar from flowers, Benedict XVI focuses more on the aspect of unity in the bees’ working together. Beneath this bee symbolism inspired by the Paschal candle and applied to the Church, Benedict may be alluding to his own motto, encouraging Christians to be bee-like “co-workers of the truth” (Cooperatores Veritatis).

Portrait of Professor Michaela C. Hastetter

The author, Michaela C. Hastetter, professor and Doctor of Theology, is Chair of Pastoral Theology and Religious Education at the International Theological Institute (ITI Catholic University) at Schloss Trumau in Austria and co-founder of the John of Damascus House of Studies in Vienna.