Dear St. Mary's family and friends,
Last week I shared with you my excitement over finding the beautiful brass Sacryn Bell. This bell is only one of three different Sanctus Bells belonging to St. Mary's. The one you are most familiar with is the handheld bell consisting of four bells together, to which you have heard at the beginning of service. The other is a group of toned bells attached to the wall of the Sacristy, which I've used quite often before beginning said services.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines a bell “as a hollow object in the shape of a deep upturned cup, made to sound a clear musical note when struck either internally or externally.”
So why do we use bells before and during the service? Is it just to add some musical sound to our worship service? No, the use of a bell has a very clear meaning.
Usually, before the service begins, the Steeple Bell is rung. This is not only a notice that the worship service is about to begin, but the true meaning is that this ringing is a call to the parishioners to come to worship. In fact, in rural England, traditional parish boundaries were marked by how far away a church’s bells could be heard.
During the worship service, smaller bells are rung, which are known as the Sanctus or the Sacryn bell. These bells are used during the prayer of consecration and are meant to draw the attention of the congregation to the
special moments of this part of the service.
One has to ask why bells to draw my attention to what’s going on.
Good question, so let’s look at a bit of history.
An ancient English word for the cross was “Rood.” One feature of many medieval church furnishings was a screen that separated the church's nave from the chancel area. In many churches, the chancel screen was topped with a beam on which rested either a large crucifix or a Christus Rex. As a result of this arrangement, the beam was known as the rood beam, and the screen became known as a rood screen. While the congregation was in the nave, the rood screen prevented them from seeing the worship service and, in many cases, from hearing it. In order for members of the congregation to know what was going on in the service, bells were introduced to draw attention to the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving. Thus the Sanctus bells are rung (usually three times) at the Holy, Holy, Holy. Next time is at the end of prayer “On the night . . . . Remembrance of me”. In some churches, during this prayer, the priest genuflects, elevates the bread, and then again genuflects, the bell is rung at each of these motions for a total of three. Likewise, during the prayer “After supper . . . remembrance of me” the bell is rung. Again in some churches as the priest genuflects and elevates the chalice, the bells are usually rung three times. The final time the Sanctus bells are rung is at the “Great Amen,” which is the end of the consecration prayers and before the Lord’s Prayer.
In many Episcopal churches, rather than the genuflection during the Great Thanksgiving, the priest will make a profound bow at the appropriate time. This is the case here at St. Mary's due to the limited space behind the altar table.
Bells in the Bible
The use of bells is mentioned four times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Exodus 28:33-35 describes the vestments worn by the high priest Aaron as he approached the Arc of the Covenant in the Holiest of Holies:
On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe. 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.
This description of Aaron’s extremely ornate priestly vestments is repeated in Exodus 39:25-26 and again in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 45:9 :
And he encircled him with pomegranates, with very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people.
The bells were likely included as part of high-priest Aaron’s vestments for two reasons. First, they created a joyful noise to God, which is something man should undertake as described in Psalm 98:4. Secondly, bells were long thought to possess apotropaic powers, or the power to ward off evil spirits. The bells were seen as tools to be used to avert dangers to Aaron before he entered the Holiest of Holies.
Bells were also used to signify adoration to God during early times, as shown in Zechariah 14:20:
And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, "Holy to the Lord". And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar.
The ancient cymbals mentioned in Psalm 150:5-6 are said to have resembled water pitchers with wide open necks, similar to the bells of today:5
Praise Him with sounding cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Historic Note: In medieval churches, the purpose of the Chancel or Rood Screen was to separate the priests and/or the monks from the laity. Today there are very few churches with Rood Screens since we no longer separate the clergy from the laity. Most Rood Screens that can be seen today have survived the ages and/or have been restored in medieval churches. Although the Rood Screen no longer exists, a feature of the Rood exists in many Episcopal churches today, which is the Christus Rex, a crucifix with Jesus' outstretched arms, in the chancel area.
Nave: The large area of a church, usually where the congregation worships, between the narthex and the chancel.
Chancel: The area around the altar.
Narthex: The space or room between the main doors to the outside and the main doors leading to the nave.
Blessings in Christ,