Life & Soul Life and Soul

Beehives and the meaning of baptism


Last week, I was inspired by both the Exsultet, sung by the deacon during the Vigil of Easter with its imagery of bees, and the survival of the beehives atop the roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral’s sacristy. These orderly little creatures, which have sparked the imaginations of Holy Church’s best writers through the centuries, supply yet another apian nexus in the Collect for the Third Sunday of Easter in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

Sunday’s Collect is one of those many prayers cobbled up for the Novus Ordo by scholars from pieces of ancient prayers. It is not without a measure of elegance:

Semper exsultet populus tuus, Deus, renovata animae iuventute, ut, qui nunc laetatur in adoptionis se gloriam restitutum, resurrectionis diem spe certae gratulationis exspectet.

Obviously this recalls baptism, with its use of the very word “exsultet” along with language of renovation, adoption and restoration.

Current ICEL translation (2011):

“May your people exult for ever, O God, in renewed youthfulness of spirit, so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption, we may look forward in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection.”

A source for the prayer that in turn gave a chunk to this Collect seems to be, again, St Ambrose of Milan (d 397), who I suggested last week was a source for the Exsultet.

Ambrose wrote with similar vocabulary in his Exposition of Ps 118 and his De mysteriis, a post-Easter explanation of the liturgy to the newly baptised.

Speaking of adoption, about which we hear a great deal from our pulpits – namely that baptism confers adoptio filiorum Dei (cf Romans 8:23; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5) – the Latin adoptio is a juridical term for the reception of a person into a family. However, adoptio also means the reception of a new bee into a hive, as in De Re Rustica 9, 13, 9 of Columella (d AD 70). Writing of bee-keeping, Columella suggests that young bees ought to be transferred into old hives, “that their families may be strengthened by the adoption [adoptio], as it were, of fresh progeny”.

What a gift it is to have been adopted into the Church’s family. Do your contributions to Holy Mother Church bring honey sweetness and warmth, as of charity aflame and fed with pure and fragrant wax? Do you, by your baptismal vocation, make the family fresher and stronger?