Friday, April 13, 2012

The sounding of the bell...

Certain things seem to raise Lutheran dander more than others.  Chanting is one.  Bells during the consecration is another.  In some respects, it is strange that this would be such a controversy for Lutherans.  It would seem that we would embrace a sound that pointed attention to the Word delivering upon its promise and making present for us in bread and wine the very body and blood of our Lord.  I found a paper tracing the history of the bell and copied portions of its detail below:

Bells were know across the ancient world in almost every culture from Egypt, China and even the Americas upwards of forty-seven centuries ago. In Roman society, house bells and door bells were a common feature. Asa point of reference from the technical perspective, the largest surviving bell from the pre-Christian period is an external house bell found at Augst, Switzerland, in 1946 having a rim diameter of 16.7cm. That bells were also strongly connected with ritual as well as these more practical and aesthetic functions in some cultures is recorded in Exodus 28: 33-35 in which the manner of the construction and the function of the Ephod is described. 

On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe. And it shall be on 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, so that he does not die.
(Exodus 28:33-35 ESV)


It is worth noting that, even here, the bells are serving a highly functional as well as ornamental role— their sound was the warning to the assembled people that the high priest was about to enter the holy of holies. One wonders, then, if it is perhaps from this that the origin of the consecration bell arises. In its earliest forms, it was a small hand bell sounded to alert those not directly able to view the actions of the priest at the altar that the moment of the consecration was about to happen.


As with so many things in the Church's liturgy, the exact date of this use is hard to say.  Suffice it to say that by about 1,000 AD it was a common fixture in the liturgy (more than 500 years prior to the Reformation).  Lutherans continued this use without much controversy -- at least until well into the 19th century generally and consistently in specific places throughout Lutheran history.  My own home congregation could hardly be considered very catholic in ceremony or ritual and yet I grew up hearing the bell during the consecration and during the Our Father. 

Luther was known to resist the impulse to make any church usage a requirement but he clearly identifies himself as one who has  "...no sympathy with the iconoclasts."  [AE 37:371]  In fact, in his Sermon on the Worthy Reception of the Sacrament, Luther expounds on the true, evangelical understanding of mass bells:

Eighth, 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,’ spoken softly by the priest, but heard clearly and audibly by us. 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.’ ” [AE 42:173]  Emphasis Added

I can hardly think of a ceremony more fitting for the high view of the Word that Lutherans hold -- the Word that does what it promises and accomplishes what it purposes, even setting apart bread to be the body of the Lord and wine to be His blood.  Pr. Chris Esget has it about right (from his blog Esgetology):  No one is required to do it. But neither can any spirit rob us of our devotion to the Lord’s gift to us in the Sacrament, or make rules forbidding something the Lord has not forbidden.  Just a few thoughts on the sound of the bell...

1 comment:

revalkorn said...

I admit it--when I'm in a church that has the Eucharist bells I inevitably whisper to my wife, "Wait for it...Wait for it..." And when the bells ring I say, "There he is! There's Jesus!"