A long time ago there was a Queen Bee who lived in a hive among the scraggly hills outside of Bethlehem. One day, as the Queen Bee sat surrounded by her offspring in the hive, she took note, among all the worker bees, and drones, and larvae still un-hatched, of a newborn honeybee that caught her eye as it wriggled out of its larval sac and into the world.
The night before this infant honeybee had been born, the Queen Bee, who liked to gaze up at the stars through a chink in the walls of the hive, had noticed a particularly bright star in the east, and she’d taken it as a sign that she should be looking for a special honeybee child to be born in the hive.
In those days, you see, honeybee colonies were collapsing – just as they have been in our own time, for several years – bees dying off for no apparent reason, with no known explanation. Entire colonies were disappearing, and the olive, and almond, and pomegranate trees were struggling in their groves without honeybees to pollinate them. And no one knew what was the cause of the illness that brought to ruin one beehive after another, killing off thousands and thousands of honeybees, their tiny carcasses ground into the dust by the sandals of men and women passing by on their way to and fro Bethlehem.
The Queen Bee suspected that Herod the Great was to blame for the slaughter of the honeybees. She had heard stories (for beehives are full of gossips) about the way that Herod had set out to kill all the infant Hebrew boys in the Bethlehem, and she harbored a deep and angry suspicion that it was at least a by-product of Herod’s campaign of terror, if not an actual part of his strategy, that was bringing about the destruction of so many colonies of honeybees, killing thousands upon thousands of bees.
She was a proud and beautiful Queen Bee, and she knew of the importance of bees to the well-being of mankind, so she took affront at the idea that men would do her and her kind harm, since honeybees do so much good for humans. But she had seen enough of humanity to know that men are fickle, and prone to abuse their power, and to resent those who do well by them. So she had begun to harbor a great resentment, herself, against humanity, as she reigned day by day over her colony of buzzing, fanning, busy little honeybees.
And she’d had this vision of a star, and she didn’t know what it meant, until she noticed the one little honeybee being born in the hive, that somehow caught her eye, and she decided that she wanted to keep this child bee close to her. So, the Queen Bee had the little infant honeybee brought to her, and swaddled in honeybee swaddling clothes, or some such thing, much to the amazement of the other bees in the hive. And she nurtured the special baby honeybee herself. She fed her the finest honey from the stores the drones maintain for her, and she fawned over the little girl honeybee in its infancy.
And when the little bee began to grow old enough to receive instruction, she had her finest worker bees take her out on forays amongst the flowers, and gardens, and groves, and riverbanks of Bethlehem – teaching her about the collection of nectar and pollen. Inside the hive, they showed her how the honeycomb is made and then how the honey is deposited, sealed up, and left to thicken and grow sweet.
The Queen Bee insisted that her special honeybee should always be protected, both inside and outside the hive. She was not allowed out of the Queen’s sight without an escort of burly drones who would gladly give their lives to carry out the Queen Bee’s wishes.
Whenever the little honeybee was not out among the flowers, or learning about the workings of the hive, the Queen Bee herself would instruct her young child. She explained to the little bee that a honeybee has only two potential capacities in life: the bee can collect nectar and make honey, or the bee can use its stinger in service to the Queen. Honeybees have no other real potential, for either they keep on making honey, or when they deploy their stingers to protect the hive or the Queen herself, the stinger is left in the flesh of the victim, and the honeybee who inflicted the sting soon dies.
You can imagine that the Queen Bee spent long hours teaching her protégé the ancient stories of honeybees, reciting the names of her forebears so the little honeybee would know her lineage, and instilling in the young bee a desire to serve her Queen above all else, as well as an intense hatred of Herod the Great, whom the Queen blamed for the ongoing epidemic of colony collapse among honeybees. Herod would have to be dealt with, the Queen repeated to her offspring. Some day she would raise up a swarm and attack Herod in his own palace, and bring an end to his reign of terror! She shared with the little honeybee her plans to build up the hive and mount an attack on Herod with a swarm so large that it would seem to be a plague of biblical proportions. In time, the growing hive looked with respect and a kind of reverence upon the strong young honeybee who was now almost always at the side of the Queen.
One night, as the Queen was gazing up at the stars through the chink in the wall of the hive, she noticed a star yet brighter than the star that had heralded the birth of her special offspring. Beehives being the rumor mills that they are, word quickly reached the Queen that a human Child had been born in Bethlehem that night, and that the people were saying this Child would be called, among other things, the Prince of Peace; that he would bring forgiveness wherever there was hurt or hatred; that he would be a new kind of king who ruled with love rather than by force; that true justice would be the result of his reign, and that mercy would characterize his rule; that he would usher in the kingdom of heaven; and that he would bring hope to all those who had none.
Now, you would think that the Queen Bee would have heard this as good news, but you’d be wrong. For the Queen had grown obsessed with the idea of wreaking vengeance on Herod. And some Baby-of-Love, heralded by the stars, about whom apparently angels were singing in the night sky, and shepherds were dashing off to visit – such a child threatened to undo her plan to mount a swarm of vengeance. And after all, only by getting rid of Herod, thought the Queen, could she prevent the collapse of her own colony of honeybees, that had so far avoided the fate that so many others had suffered.
The Queen was blinded, you might say, by her vengeful spirit, and she’d been given little reason to think that any human child could be the bearer of good news to honeybees, anyway. So she called her beloved daughter honeybee into her innermost chamber, and shared with her a special mission:
“My child,” the Queen Bee said, “I have loved you like no other bee in the hive. I have reared you myself, and shared with you all my wisdom, all my history, all my insights, and all my plans. You are the strongest, cleverest bee in the hive, and no one surpasses you in any way.
“Tonight, my dear one, I must ask you to realize one of the only two potential capacities of which a honeybee is possessed.
“Tonight I will send you to the newborn Child in Bethlehem, and you must sting the infant King with your stinger, dear child. For if the prophecies are true, he will prevent me from unleashing my swarm on Herod; he will be a force for peace, when what we need to protect the colony is terrible power; he will urge forgiveness, when what we need is to show these humans that we are more frightening than they had ever imagined, and we are not to be trifled with!”
And the Queen Bee produced from a secret part of the honeycomb, a dark and treacly substance that was, she told the little honeybee, a special venom, more deadly than normal bee venom, guaranteed to kill a little newborn child with only one sting. She loaded the venom carefully into the glands that empty into the stinger of her beloved little honeybee. She looked at her daughter lovingly and gratefully, for it pained her to send her beloved child on the cruel errand she had planned, but she could see no other way. And whispering words of love and encouragement from her antennae to her daughter’s, she sent her strongest, most beautiful, dearly beloved honeybee child out on a mission to kill, and to die.
The honeybee easily found the barn, what with the bright star twinkling right over it, and with the shepherds showing the way as they loped along toward the place. In the night sky, the honeybee circled, taking in the scene: parents with newborn Child, shepherds gawking, cattle lowing, and indeed, and angel or two off in the distance singing in Latin, as angels are prone to do. Then she swooped in closer, and buzzed through the open barn a few times. It was more of a lean-to than a proper barn. The father was asleep, in a pile of straw beside the manger. The Mother was drowsy but awake, having laid her Child down in his own bed of straw to sleep. But the Child was not sleeping; his eyes were open, twinkling with a brightness not unlike the brightness of the star above.
It was a warmish night, and the Baby kept wriggling out of the swaddling clothes his Mother had wrapped him in. He was reaching out his hands and opening his little pudgy palms wide as he could, the way babies do. An easy target.
The honeybee buzzed by again, and the Mother saw it, and drew in her breath sharply. The Mother swatted at the honeybee with a handful of straw, but she was tired, and her defenses were down.
And the Child locked his eyes on the compound eyes of the honeybee as the brave bee prepared to realize her potential, to give her own life for the sake of her mother, the Queen, and to save her own hive by this regrettable act of treachery. And the honeybee extended its stinger from its abdomen and set a course for the soft exposed shoulder of the little child. She felt the venom: heavier than the usual venom in its sac, ready to be delivered. She flew far outside of the barn, in order to build up as much speed as possible.
The Mother had no idea what was about to happen. The father was snoring, the stupid cattle were still lowing, and the shepherds were useless.
The honeybee zoomed in toward the Child, who clearly saw it coming.
Just then, the Mother looked up and saw what was about to happen, but she had no time to react or even to scream.
The Child was looking at the honeybee with a look of serenity on its face, and a look of strength, and of grace. And the Child stretched out its hand to the incoming honeybee, whose stinger was ready to strike.
“Foolish child,” was the last thing the honeybee thought as she prepared to pierce the Baby with her stinger. She aimed directly for the soft palm of his outstretched little hand. And as she went in for the kill, the Baby actually gently closed his little fingers around the honeybee, making it even easier for her to place her stinger right where she wanted it.
The Mother shrieked a little shriek. The father roused from his sleep. The cattle looked up.
The Mother stooped over the manger in fear to see what damage the bee had done, expecting to find a red, inflamed spot, and the little stinger sticking out of the Baby’s flesh. But she never suspected the truth: never suspected the deadly power of the venom that the honeybee had deployed for this Holy Child. She expected to hear the Baby cry out, but she was not expecting him to die. She was expecting him to wail, and for it to be a very difficult night, but not to be his last night. She was ready to open the little hand and to kiss the tiny wound, to bathe it with her saliva, and to draw the bee’s venom out of him with her lips. But she was not prepared for what happened next.
She was not prepared for the Baby to lie absolutely still, and to remain absolutely silent.
And she was not prepared to see the tiny stinger there in the flesh of his tiny hand, but to see that there was nothing red or inflamed around the stinger; there was only a tiny drop of a thick, golden liquid. And when she pressed her lips to it, she knew immediately what it was: honey.
And she was not prepared to see a fluttering of tiny wings down in the straw as the honeybee discovered that her venom had been somehow turned to honey, and that she had not died. And the bee sped off into the night to return home to the Queen Bee and urge her to re-evaluate the situation. And the Child cried out to its Mother that he was hungry.
Now everybody knows that the world does not work like this. Everybody knows that honeybees do not plot to overthrow governments. And everybody knows that special little babies are not born who turn dangerous weapons into honey.
Everybody knows that no Prince of Peace has established his reign over the face of the earth; that forgiveness has not triumphed over hurt and hatred; that we have not yet seen a king who could truly rule with love rather than by force; that true justice is so far unknown in the world, and that mercy is a rare commodity; that the kingdom of heaven seems like a fairy tale; and that no Child has yet brought hope to all those who have none
Except tonight. When for some reason, more of us than would normally be open to such a thing, have come here to sit with the baby Jesus.
And maybe we have come here hoping that he will take all our hatred, and jealousy, and violence, our cruelty, and our abused power, our pride, and even our sense of honor that is so easily misplaced; that Jesus will take whatever it is that warps and ruins our lives and the world we live in; that Jesus will take our stingers, and our venom – of which we have plenty – and turn them into honey.
And we come here tonight, not to tell ourselves fairytales that will never come true; but to remember that this Child has done it before. He has brought peace out of deadly venom, from the tip of a sharpened stinger. He has brought life where no one could see anything but death.
And he will do it again.
He is doing it now, if we will let him; if we go back to our hives and re-evaluate the situation, and decide that of the many potential capacities available to us, perhaps the best one is to make honey.
And if you aren’t sure what that might mean, how you might make honey out of the venom of your life, then you might want to reach out your hand, so to speak, and place it in the hand of the Baby Jesus and just hold on to him, and let him show you how.
And when you do hold him, don’t be surprised to find that your own hand has about it the faint aroma and the unmistakable taste of a drop or two of honey.
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia