Little Liturgical Lesson: “The bells! The bells!”

Last week I talked about the ‘smells’ (incense) now let’s talk about the bells! Why ring the ‘Sanctus bells’ and the church bell during the Eucharist? (‘Sanctus’ is Latin for ‘holy’ and is also used to name the hymn we sing in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, because it begins, ‘Holy, holy, holy…’)

  • Bells calling folk to church began in the 5th century but it seems the  ‘sanctus bells’ used during the service is a Johnny come lately addition introduced only eight hundred years ago…when the outdoor bells also began to be rung at key points in the service to let people who weren’t in church know that something significant was happening. You may have noticed that we still do this at two key points of the service at Christ Church.
  • There had been a bit of bell ringing in ancient Jewish worship and if you look up Exodus 28 you’ll see that Moses’s sidekick Aaron had bells sewn on to his outfit so they rang as he walked about the sanctuary. This may have been a little irritating!
  • In the Christian tradition, a while after the 13th century thing with outside bells, small sets of ‘sanctus bells’ (generally three or four) came to be used inside the church at various points. The purpose was the same and are twofold:
  1. To add to the joyful noise being made unto the Lord  (see Psalm 98:4)
  2. To draw the attention of the congregation at the HIGH POINTS in the overall ‘drama’ of the Mass:
    • At the ‘epiclesis’ (this word and idea will deserve its own LLL)  i.e. the moment when the celebrant asks the Father to ‘send the Holy Spirit’ to fill the bread and wine with the mysterious presence of Christ. If you look next time, you’ll see that they ring as the celebrant extends his hands over the bread and wine.
    • When, during the ‘words of institution’ (the words Jesus used at the Last Supper when the first Eucharist was celebrated) the consecrated bread is lifted up and shown to the people.
    • When after remembering Jesus taking the cup of wine, the chalice is also lifted up.
    • Once the celebrant has received, to signal that the congregation may come forward to receive Holy Communion.

They are also sometimes rung as the ancient hymn we call the Sanctus (see above) begins to be sung.

(at the second and third points. the church bell is also rung so the community outside may hear. Whatever they make of it, his reminds us that the Eucharist is not just offered for the people who turn up, but on behalf of the whole parish)

  • Of course the bells are not essential, and anyone who can totally concentrate during the service certainly won’t need them! Though not essential, they are not superfluous.
  • Both ‘smells and bells’ are signs of honour and are designed to help bring dignity to worship. Something profound even mysterious is happening, and we need to engage all our senses if we are to enter in…

BY +LINDSAY