Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Bells of Easter, Part 1: The Golden Bells of the High Priest - Guest Article by Robert Keim

Onec again, we are grateful to Mr Robert Keim for sharing some of his writing with us, this time in a two part article on the subject of the liturgical use of bells. Mr Keim is a secular brother of the London Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a linguist, and a literary scholar specializing in the poetic and dramatic literature of the English Renaissance. A longtime student of the arts and spirituality of sacred liturgy, he teaches university courses in rhetoric and is pursuing research into the devotional, scriptural, and liturgical culture of medieval England.

One of my most cherished experiences during the liturgical year is made possible by a rather unhistorical mingling of rites. I typically entrust my Lenten journey to the plaintive beauty and deprivation of the Roman liturgy. But after enduring six weeks of penance and ritual austerity, my soul is thirsty for paschal joys, and I prefer to seek them in the effusive Easter Sunday celebrations of the Byzantine rite. Honestly, though, one hardly needs to seek them, for they are all but inescapable at certain moments—for instance, when the priest, vested in the brilliant white of the Resurrection, walks among the faithful and reminds them again and again that “Christ is risen.” His voice is exultant and insistent, and his words are accompanied by the gladsome song of thurible bells.

It is a noble object indeed that can simultaneously delight three of the five senses: an Eastern rite censer, which adds the pleasures of sound to those of sight and smell, has twelve bells that symbolize the twelve apostles. (Some Eastern censers have a thirteenth bell that makes no sound—it represents Judas.)
As anyone knows who regularly attends the Roman Mass or the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, bells are prominent features of Catholic worship throughout the liturgical year. Christians of centuries past would also be thoroughly familiar with their continual use as signals—signum, in fact, was one of the medieval Latin words for a church bell—that announced hours of prayer and worship from morning till evening. However, bells also have a special connection with the Easter season, and give us an opportunity to contemplate the Resurrection of our dear Lord through the material realities of sacred liturgy.
The Golden Bells of the Old Testament
Bells of various types have been favored instruments in Christian liturgical life for well over a thousand years. This relationship, which is unique among world religions, began in the early days of the Hebraic covenant, but remained rather dormant until the early medieval period.
The Hebrew scriptures contain two words for bells. One of these, metsillah, appears only once (in Zechariah 14, 20) and probably denoted instruments that we would identify as cymbals rather than bells. The other word, paʿamon, is also uncommon, but it appears in a passage of far greater significance:
And thou shalt make the tunic of the ephod all of violet.... And beneath at the feet of the same tunic, round about, thou shalt make as it were pomegranates, of violet, and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, with little bells set between: so that there shall be a golden bell and a pomegranate, and again another golden bell and a pomegranate. And Aaron shall be vested with it in the office of his ministry, that the sound may be heard, when he goeth in and cometh out of the sanctuary, in the sight of the Lord, and that he may not die. (Exodus 28, 31, 33–35)
Truly, the God of Israel scrupled not to let His chosen people glimpse the divine realities of heaven through the sensual realities of earth. And Aaron must have been a formidable minister indeed as he approached the altar of sacrifice arrayed in exotic garments, splendid colors, precious metal, stone engravings, and the gleaming bells that turned his very movements into a song of protection against the overwhelming holiness of God’s sanctuary.
An eleventh-century mosaic of the high priest Aaron. The censer alludes to an event, recounted in the Book of Numbers, when Aaron’s intercession, aided by the appeasing aroma of incense, saved the fractious Israelites from divine chastisement: “he offered the incense: and standing between the dead and the living, he prayed for the people, and the plague ceased.” The narrative is rich with the possibilities of allegorical and prefigurative interpretations. [1]
Hearing the Harmony of the Cosmos
Ancient Jewish commentators assigned various interpretations to the bells of the high priest. Among these was a view shared by Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus, who both understood the golden bells as a liturgical manifestation of harmony in God’s Creation. Philo, for example, savors the visual poetry of the high priest’s vestments, which were “ornamented with golden pomegranates, and bells, and wreaths of flowers; ... a most beautiful and skillful work ... of hyacinth color, and purple, and fine linen, and scarlet, gold thread being entwined and embroidered in it.” He observes that the flowers symbolize earth, the pomegranates symbolize water, and “the bells are the emblem of the concord and harmony that exist between these things” – for only in the union of earth and water does the natural world bring forth abundant life.
The harmonious sound of bells, then, evokes the primordial harmony of the cosmos, which Our Lord both restored and sublimated through His victory—on Easter Sunday, the “eighth day” of consummate re-Creation—over sin and death. Philo’s imagery of flower, earth, fruit, and water also has strong sacramental resonance; we are reminded of the waters of Baptism, the chrism of Confirmation (made from olive oil and aromatic balsam), the natural fecundity of matrimony, and the supernatural fecundity of the wheat and grapes that become our divine nourishment. Thus, we might imagine the complex yet unified tonality of altar bells as signifying the deep spiritual unity of the Sacraments.
This thirteenth-century illumination depicts King David, the archetypal religious musician, playing a set of bells. The text is from Psalm 80: “Exultate deo adiutori nr̄o: iubilate deo iacob. Sumite psalmum et date tīpanum: psalterium iocundū cum cythara” (“Exult ye to God our helper: sing aloud to the God of Jacob. Take ye up a psalm and give the timbrel: the pleasing lute with the lyre”).
Hearing the Harmony of the Church
The liturgical bells of the Old Covenant also prefigure the harmony that, as a distinctive feature of Christ’s mystical body [2], is the fruit of His Resurrection and the subsequent outpourings of divine grace. Aaron’s bells were woven into his robe, and the psalmist surrounds this robe with themes of brotherly love, sanctification, renewal, and everlasting life:
Lo, how good and pleasant it is,
      for friends to dwell together:
like precious oil upon the head,
      flowing down upon the beard:
Aaron’s beard, that cometh down
      to the edge of his robe;
like dew of Khermón, that cometh down
      upon the hills of Syón;
for there the Lord ordained a blessing:
      life, to ages and forever. (Psalm 132)
Golden bells, being both luminous and sonorous, reach what may be their poetic apogee when we see them as symbols of the saints in heaven, who live in perfect charity, shine with divine splendor, and offer to Almighty God an unceasing sacrifice of ineffably harmonious song. As Aaron’s priestly garment was made specially rich and sacred by the presence of bells, so is the mystical body of the eternal High Priest singularly adorned with the gleaming, ever-praising souls of the blessed in heaven. The ringing of the altar bells and the tolling of the church bell remind us that we are called to join them some day.
Dante and Beatrice were in the Sixth Heaven when “all those living lights, ever more luminous, began to sing”—heavenly music that il sommo Poeta described as the chiming of angelic bells (Paradiso, canto 20).
The Bells of Christendom
Bells never attained further prominence in Judaic liturgy. Their historical moment would arrive along with the gradually developing liturgical life of Christian civilization, and in the next article part of this article, we will look more deeply into the paschal theology of bells.

[1] “And when there arose a sedition, and the tumult increased, Moses and Aaron fled to the tabernacle of the covenant. And when they were gone into it, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. And the Lord said to Moses: Get you out from the midst of this multitude, this moment will I destroy them. And as they were lying on the ground, Moses said to Aaron: Take the censer, and putting fire in it from the altar, put incense upon it, and go quickly to the people to pray for them: for already wrath is gone out from the Lord, and the plague rageth. When Aaron had done this, and had run to the midst of the multitude which the burning fire was now destroying, he offered the incense: and standing between the dead and the living, he prayed for the people, and the plague ceased” (Numbers 16, 42-48, Challoner-Douay-Rheims translation).
[2] “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13 35)

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