On this Monday in the Octave of Easter and during the fifty days of Easter until the Solemnity of Pentecost, the Paschal Candle that was blessed at the beginning of the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night, that candle of noble proportion burns during the celebrations of Mass. The presence of the Paschal Candle gladdens our hearts with an Easter joy that extends throughout the fifty days. During the Vigil that fourth century text, the Exultet, was chanted in the presence of the paschal candle enveloped with the fragrance of incense and surrounded by hundreds of Christ’s faithful holding lighted tapers burning for the honor of God.
Shown here at the foot of the Candle is a beautiful book that contains the Exultet with illustrations by Deacon Rohrbacher of the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska. His illustrated Exultet is in the tradition of the Paschal scrolls of the middle ages, especially in Italy. As the deacon chanted he would unroll the scroll, so that he could read the music and the people would see the the beautiful illustrations, painted upside down for him but right side up for them, as the Exultet proceeded. This article has wonderful examples of these Exsultet scrolls. Rohrbacher’s illustrated Exsultet is a volume of artwork full of ancient iconography and charm… and bees, an abundance of buzzing bees! Bees buzzing on every page. Why the bees?
During the chanting of this lovely 4th-century praeconium there is an allusion to bees, stated in the words “For it is fed by melting wax drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.” Why chant about bees? Several wonderful reasons:
First, it was believed among ancient and medieval people that bees reproduced virginally, thus the mother bee was a symbol of Mary; from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Hail, Holy Mother, who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever.” Also, beeswax is used in candles, which provide light; Augustine refers to the newly-baptised as “a new colony of bees,” or, as Benedict XVI describes 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.”
Then we chant during the night of the Great Vigil Psalm 19 “your words are sweeter than honey from the comb / …desiderabilia super aurum et lapidem pretiosum multum et dulciora super mel et favum.” Last but not least, most of the Exsultet is attributed to Saint Ambrose of Milan, about whom it was said, “as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue.”
And indeed Ambrose grew up to write many beautiful chants and hymns, including the sublime Exultet, “But now we know the praises of this pillar, a flame divided but undimmed, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour, 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.”