On Saturday the 7th of November 2010 the bells of Holy Cross Orthodox Church will be installed. At sundown on that same evening, at the holy service of Vespers, as the suns sets, they will ring out announcing that Sunday has arrived. The little Pascha (Easter) that awaits all Christians has arrived! The Eighth Day – a day of Resurrection!
And on Sunday the 8th, the feast of St. Michael and all the Angels, the bells will sing! They will sing their first song along with the angels, and holy archangels. How fitting! They will sing with the angels on the feast – The Synaxis of Angels.
Yes, they will sing!
“…not a note, not a chord, but with a voice…”
Church Bells are God’s voice. Church Bells are God’s evangelists! The bells of Holy Cross Orthodox Church are a gift from our Priest, Fr. Gregory Hogg who purchased them recently in honor of his mother and father who departed this life in the Faith over the past several years, may their memory be eternal! These bells, like all liturgical bells, were hand-made, hand crafted, made of brass, and bronze, and iron…forged in deep heat, burnished, polished and shined to a rich golden hue. Each bell is named for a saint. Each bell has a verse inscribed upon it. Each bell was anointed with Chrism, was sprinkled with Holy Water, and was consecrated (set apart) for the ministry of calling all people to live in the Good News of God’s Gospel in Holy Liturgy.
These bells traveled a long way. Their birth and creation took place in Russia, a country filled with rich traditions in the Orthodox faith for over a thousand years since 988 AD. For centuries the bells of Holy Orthodox Russia called the people to pray, to fast, to Liturgy, to funerals, weddings, baptisms, and sometimes even to defend their lands from attackers. But until the rise of Marx, Stalin and Communism, the Holy Bells of Russia were God’s glorious voice of grace for all the world to hear. But Communism has no place for God – so tons and tons of bells and church buildings were destroyed, torn down, broken, melted and made into guns, tanks and bullets for the Red armies. But, Glory to God, for now the bells are ringing again in the freedom of a Christian Russia. Now those bells are singing – again!
I used to think that I knew lots about church bells. They swing, and ring, and play songs. Of course real bells, I thought, are outlawed right? Too much noise, don’t wake the neighbors up etc. And what about those cheesy electronic Carillon “bells”? The ones that play “Amazing Grace“, the “Star Spangled Banner“, and the “Michigan Wolverines Fight Song” all on the same sacred CD. Nothing is worse than those speaker based electronic “bells”. Right?
In Orthodoxy, as I am coming to discover, bells are not a musical instrument, they are not a nice “extra”, or “add-on”, but they are “…an icon of the voice of God” an integral part of worship and life. To use football language, Orthodox Bells are like the “12th Man”. In fact an Orthodox Church without bells, is really not an Orthodox Church at all, or at least it is an incomplete one, such is the long, storied and rich tradition of bells in the life of the people, and the worship.
The bells must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? They must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Orthodox bells must never be tuned to either a major or minor chord. ‘The voice of a bell is understood as just that….not a note, not a chord – but a voice.’”
In Orthodoxy bells sing! Because they have a ‘tongue’, not a clapper! They are voiced to resemble the human voice, thus they sing, and are an icon of the voice of God.
But the sound of a bell was different: it carried for longer distances and was uniquely recognizable. It called people to something special, to the service of prayer, it was calling them to God. For people who accepted the teaching of Christ with their whole hearts, who made an effort to live their daily lives in accordance with God’s commandments, a call to prayer was a welcome relief from the harsh realities of daily existence. Bells called people to another world, the heavenly world of beauty in the churches. The churches for them were heaven on earth, places where salvation was being taught, where sins were being forgiven and one was sanctified. The bells not only called people to the beginning of worship, but by means of ringing different bells or different ringing patterns, they instructed those who could not make it to church, which important parts of the service were being celebrated, so that absentees could mentally and spiritually participate in the services. Thus one can say that the bells spread the walls of the church as far as they could be heard.
In addition, the bells had other duties. Certain designated church bells were rung when there was forthcoming an important announcement from the Prince or from the ruling civil body. Other bell sounds alarmed people at the approach of an enemy, or, worst of all, of a house being on fire, which often spread to the whole city or village. The sound of bells, long before its aesthetic musical evolution, had become an integral part of Russian Orthodox Christianity, of the true glorification of God. Bell ringing in Russia became akin to shofars, the horn trumpets of the Old Testament, proclaiming the joys and the sorrows, the bloodless Offerings to God, and calls for defense of town or country. And the desire to announce important events far and wide led to rapid evolution in the size and weight of Russian bells. In the Russian bell ringing system, the bells themselves are mounted stationary, with free-swinging clappers. Thus the Russian bell ringers have complete freedom and control not only of the instance of impact, but of the intensity of the impact as well. They can, and do, produce a large variety of rhythmic patterns and combinations on the same bells, from the solemn sounds of a funeral peal or lenten zvon, to boisterous, joyful music on the great feasts, sometimes bordering on dance imagery.
Here is the beautiful prayer of Consecration at the Blessing of the Bells:
O Lord our God, Who desirest always to be glorified and worshiped by all Thy faithful: In the Old Covenant, Thou didst command Thy servant, the Lawgiver Moses, to make silver trumpets, and the sons of Aaron, the priests, to blow them when they would offer sacrifice unto Thee, that Thy people, having heard the voice of the trumpets, would prepare themselves to worship Thee, that they might gather themselves together to offer sacrifices unto Thee, and, with the resounding voice of these trumpets in time of war, they might arm themselves with might for victory over their enemies:Now, O most holy Master, humbly we beseech Thee: Look down mercifully on the fervent supplication of us, Thine unworthy servants, and upon this bell, fashioned for the service of Thy holy Church, and to the glory of Thy magnificent and all-holy Name: With Thy heavenly blessing and the grace of the Thine All-consecrating Spirit, do Thou bless (+) it and consecrate it, and send down upon it the power of Thy grace, That Thy faithful servants, having heard the voice of its peal, may be strengthened in piety and faith, and with courage, may oppose all the slanders of the devil, and overcome them by prayer and by the everlasting glorification of Thee, the True God,
+ That with haste, day and night, they might be led to the church in prayer and glorification of Thy holy Name.
+ May storms, hail, whirlwinds, fearful thunder and lightning, evil and destructive winds befalling them be appeased, calmed and made to cease at its ringing.
+ For Thou, O Lord our God use not only spiritual and living things for Thy glory and for the salvation and use of Thy faithful, but also inanimate things, such as the Staff of Moses and the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness, for as Thou dost desire, Thou dost work most glorious things and perform miracles.
+ For everything is possible for Thee, and nothing is impossible; and unto Thee do we send up glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
O Master, God the Father Almighty, Who, at the voice of the trumpet, when seven priests went before the Ark of Testimony, didst cause the firm walls of Jericho to fall down and crumble, and didst deliver all living in the city into the hands of Thy people: Fill now also this bell with Thy heavenly blessing, that the voice of its ringing, when it is heard, may banish the power of contrary winds far away from the cities of Thy faithful, and extinguish all the arrows of their fiery destruction falling upon us, that is, devouring lightning, and by Thine all-powerful and mighty right arm, let the falling hail, and every evil and harmful wind be held back and driven away; yea, let them be appeased, calmed and banished.
So Glory to God!. Thank you Father Gregory. And thank God for the memory of your mother and father who live on, in heaven with Him, and also with us, worshipping and leading Holy Cross in Liturgical Worship for many, many years to come. Sunday is a new day, and the bells will announce to the little sleepy village of Dorr that God is alive, that He is near, and that He can be found. All you need to do is, rise, and walk toward His voice, to the gates of heaven following the sound of the melodic bells of His church.