Symbolism

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The Bee, A Symbol of the Church

Catherine Croisette

Some time ago, I had the habit of attending the private Mass in a chapel where the gorgeous tabernacle and golden candlesticks were artistically designed with golden bees climbing up and down them. I ignorantly thought it odd to have insects depicted on blessed articles for use at Mass, so I questioned the priest about it and was told that bees are a symbol of the Church.

St Peter Bernini altar

In the columns of the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter's Basilica one finds bees among the leaves and flowers. Below, the general view of the altar and baldachin

St Peter altar and baldachin

I later found a text of St. John Chrysostom in which he in some way confirmed that explanation when he wrote: "The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others" (12th Homily).  So, I realized that the bees, like the clergy and religious men and women in the Church, work unceasingly for the common good of the hive and obey without question their superiors, and above all their queen.

The bee is also a symbol of wisdom, for it collects nectar from many flowers and turns it into nourishing and pleasing honey, which is the 'gold' of bees. We should do the same, take whatever we can and transform it through our labor into a superior element useful for us and our neighbor.

The symbolism of bees also signifies the way the Church generates her spiritual fruits because bees are virginal, they don't have any sexual contact (1). As the Church gives grace through the purity of her divine Sacraments, so the bees give us honey and wax by the labor of their pure bodies. This is why their wax, considered the fruit of a virgin labor, is worthy to burn in the candles on the altar at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.

The honey, so agreeable to the palate, is symbolic of spiritual sweetness and religious eloquence. For this reason, the beehive is emblematic of St. Ambrose and of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, two Doctors whom the Church calls mellifluus and mellificuus, that is, with an eloquence as suave and “sweet as honey.”

Like charitable Catholics, bees produce good works for their neighbor at all times by pollinating the plants for food, beauty and air quality, so necessary for the survival of others.

The symbolism goes on regarding the Church. Indeed, the bees work without rest and give their lives without hesitation for the good of the hive. They are instantly and vigorously militant against enemies of the hive. Not only the hive, but the honey, upon which their lives depend, is also vigorously protected. When endangered by heat, they cling to the outside of the hive and beat their wings relentlessly to cool the hive and keep the honey from melting. Many bees die when this happens.

This is a marvelous and unique natural phenomenon that signifies other marvelous and unique phenomena of the Catholic Church: her militant members, her apologists and her martyrs. They gave their lives for the good of the Church, and their blood became the seed for vibrant growth, as happened many times in History.

The bees’ survival depends upon a queen and their unquestioning obedience and loyalty to her, just as we are all absolutely dependent upon Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, for our eternal salvation and our protection from the world, the flesh and the devil.

Bees instinctively observe such a tremendous reverence for their authority that none dare leave the hive to swarm in other pastures unless the queen has gone forth in front of them and claimed the first rank of flight for herself. The ever-vigilant bees guard their queen and hive - as we should guard Our Queen and our Church - to the ultimate price, and instinctively consider it a duty to die for them.

Finally, perhaps you noticed, the natural beehive is shaped similarly to a traditional Tabernacle!
1. The bees we see - the worker-bees - do not reproduce. The only one that has sexual contact is the queen that is mated by one or more drones and then lays thousands of eggs. The queen becomes the mother of a whole colony of bees.
Bee hive 01   Bee hive 03   Bee hive 04

Posted November 21,2009

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