Thursday, March 24, 2016

Honey and Bees: A Homily for Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday
Mass of the Lord’s Supper 
March 24, 2016

Fr. Kyle L. Doustou

One of the things that I love about living in a rural community is hearing about all the fascinating things people are up to in their lives. Some people are building barns…others are raising chickens…others are starting a homestead…and others are growing gardens that are beyond amazing. Living up here is so very different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. There’s a wholesomeness and a holiness that is palpable. It should come as no surprise to you that I have developed a deep love for the rural life and that I have spent a considerable amount of time and energy reflecting on the role that spirituality plays in it. What I’ve discovered is that when we strip away just a bit of the “urbanization” that has occurred in recent years, we are left with a land and a way of life that is beautifully similar to what our Lord would have experienced in Nazareth 2,000 years ago: raising life stock, making things with our hands, and depending upon a community for our emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. That’s why preaching up here is so great…the parables that our Lord uses are to relate to the people of His time who were agrarian are just as applicable to us up here in Aroostook County. When He talks about sowing, and reaping, and harvesting, and fertilizing, there are very few of us who cannot immediately and intimately relate. And the entire Gospel is communicated in such a way…truly He’s speaking to us.

I posted on Facebook a few days ago that my homily for Holy Thursday was not going to fall short of the agricultural ideal found in Scripture because I was going to be preaching about bees. I love bees and many people around here have talked about starting bee colonies, so I decided to run with it. A lot of eyebrows were raised and a lot of questions were asked: Holy Thursday is all about the Eucharist, the Priesthood, and the Washing of the Feet…how could you possibly preach about bees? Well sit back and go on a journey with me, because we have to start in Exodus.

We know that our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood during the course of the Passover feast…the ancient Jewish festival recalling the deliverance of the people of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt. We all know the story well and we heard about it again in tonight’s first reading: the blood of an innocent lamb is spread on the lintel of the Israelite’s doorpost, allowing them to be spared from the tenth plague and to escape into freedom. And we all know that Christ is the new and eternal Passover lamb Whose blood spares us from the plague of sin and allows us to enter into the freedom of heaven. But I want to focus in on the promise that God made to the people of Israel when He led them out of slavery…He promised that He would lead them to a new land, a new home, where they would enjoy happiness and prosperity…and He called it the land of milk and honey.

Honey is a beautiful, delicious, and succulent staple and has been for thousands of years. And it’s so much tastier, in my opinion, than sugar cane or other sweeteners. But honey is just that…a sweetener. It’s not like grain or water or meat…it’s an extra, a luxury. That’s why honey, for the Israelites, was a rich symbol of God’s superfluous grace…a goodness extended to them not only for their sustenance, but for their enjoyment and pleasure. For God to say that He was leading them to a place flowing with milk and honey was to promise them a life of lavish happiness. They wandered for 40 years in the desert, waiting and longing for such a land…and though they complained and moaned along the way, the wait was worth it. The land they were led into was beautiful and fruitful and lush…and everything they thought it would be, at least for a time. Over the next several centuries the people of Israel would have to fight for their land, they would be exported and thrown from it…and it left them wondering where God’s lavish goodness was. Where was this milk and honey they were promised? Little did they know, however, that the answer would change the world.

The sweet succulence of God’s grace that the Israelites were longing for could never really be found in the land, but rather in a Person, in God Himself. And on the night before He died – this night – God Himself finally gave them, and us, the honey that they had been promised: His own flesh and blood in the Holy Eucharist. Lavish. Superfluous. Over-the-top. Unimaginably good. God gave Himself to His own creation as food. The manna, the quail, and the honey…it all pointed and foreshadowed the Eucharist. And tonight it has been brought to fulfillment.

But if we are to understand just how amazing this everlasting honey is that we receive in the Eucharist, we have to understand the one Who gives it to us…and that’s where the bee comes in. A bee is a worker…a selfless servant who expends itself day in and day out for the sake of its colony. It tirelessly collects nectar, deposits it into combs, and fans it with its wings until it has reached the perfect consistency for honey. The bee does exactly what St. Paul speaks about in our second reading tonight…it generously hands on what it itself has received. And the bee does exactly what Christ does for us…it labors selflessly so that we can feast upon its sweet honey. Christ is the tireless worker Who lays down His life for us, and the Eucharist is the honey He gives us as a living sign of His enduring love.

So the bee hands on to us what it has received…and Christ hands on to us what He Himself has received. What about us? What are we handing on? Most of us here feast sumptuously on the gift of the Eucharist every week, and some of us every day…but are we handing on what we have received? Are we handing on the very Christ Who makes His indwelling in us to everyone we meet, or are we hoarding Him as some kind of private reward? He doesn’t give us the Eucharist simply as a benefit to us, but as a means of benefiting and sanctifying the world. Those of us who approach Him in Holy Communion are thus bound to engage in the precious work of evangelization, in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and to live our faith with every breath we take.

In our Gospel this evening, Christ gives us a further concrete witness to what He expects from His friends…that we would get on our knees in service and continue handing on what we have received. He humbles Himself by washing the feet of His disciples, and He commands us to live this love out in our own lives. It means getting on the ground…it means doing what is uncomfortable…it means going where no one else wants to go. It means being like Him and becoming a selfless bee that continues to spread His sweet honey wherever we go.

The key to the spiritual life is the recognition of God’s presence in every moment and facet of our lives. We are surrounded by reminders that He is near, lavishing choice portions of grace upon us. The next time you see a bee…the next time you indulge in a bit of honey…remember God’s nearness and what He has accomplished for you this night. St. Francis de Sales once said: “When the bee has gathered the dew of heaven and the earth's sweetest nectar from the flowers, it turns it into honey, then hastens to its hive. In the same way, the priest, having taken from the altar the Son of God (who is as the dew from heaven, and true son of Mary, flower of our humanity), gives him to you as delicious food.” Eat this food tonight, eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, and allow It to change your life forever.