Holy Asides
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September 9, 2014, 5:00 PM

I Hear Bells Ringing in My Head

As we have begun the new program year and lectionary, we have also added the ringing of Sanctus bells at the 8:30 service. I have had several inquiries to the meaning and significance of the bells and I thought I would address the multi-layered significance of the ringing of bells during the Eucharist.


The first place the bells are rung is during the Sanctus (“Holy Holy, Holy”), which announces the coming of our great high priest, Jesus. In Exodus 28:33-35 and again in Exodus 39:25-27 instructions are given to sew golden bells on the robe of Aaron, the high priest. Exodus 28:35 states: "And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, lest he die." Here the Lord demands that bells be rung when the high priest enters his sanctuary.  It is a matter of life and death.  It is only appropriate that we too should hear the ringing of bells when our great high priest Jesus Christ enters his sanctuary to give us life. The Sanctus recalls Isaiah's vision of worship with the angels of heaven in the presence of God, and the "Hosannas" that Christians have added to Isaiah's hymn remind us of the coming of Jesus as the Christ to the temple in Jerusalem. Now Jesus is preparing to make our bodies his temple as he comes to us in his holy supper. 


Next, we hear the ringing of the bells at the Words of Institution after the blessing of both the bread and the wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus. This ringing punctuates the action of the liturgy. It draws special attention that these are the words and command of Jesus himself. Concerning the use of the bell at this point, the great theologian Martin Luther writes, ". . . the priest's elevation of the sacrament and the cup, together with the ringing of the bells, has no other purpose than to remind us of the words of Christ. It is as if the priest and the bell-ringer were saying to us all, "Listen, you Christians, and see, take and eat, take and drink, etc. ‘This is the body and this is the blood of Christ,'. . . With these words you must now edify your hungry heart and rely upon the truth of this divine promise, then receive the sacrament, make your way to God, and say, ‘Lord, it is true that I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but I need and desire your help and grace to make me godly. I now come to you, trusting only in the wonderful words I just heard, with which you invite me to your table and promise me, the unworthy one, forgiveness of all my sins through your body and blood if I eat and drink them in this sacrament. Amen. Dear Lord, I do not doubt the truth of your words. Trusting them, I eat and I drink with you. Do unto me according to your words. Amen.'


Finally, ringing the bells at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer announces that the mystery of the consecration is complete and prepares worshipers to both respond in the words that Jesus taught his disciples, the Lord's Prayer; and to answer the call to come to the altar and partake in this most holy sacramental union of Christ's Body and Blood.


Is the Sanctus bell necessary? No. But, as an instrument for calling attention to and accenting the mystery of our Lord's presence in the sacrament, the Sanctus bell has an important place in twenty-first century multi-sensory worship. When properly understood, bells can enrich the worshipers appreciation of the great treasure of the sacrament; and recognize that the Eucharist is no casual or ordinary eating and drinking, but a mystical communion with our Lord and Savior.


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