I hope you all had a most blessed and very merry Christmas! Mike and I certainly did. Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Our sins are forgiven, we are redeemed and are destined for eternal life. This is good! And don’t forget that Christmas lasts for 12 days — December 25 – January 6. Hallelujah! These 12 days are my favorite part of the Christmas season: they’re like a small taste of heaven — all the work of Christmas ended with Christmas Day; but the tree and lights are still up, the refrigerator is still full of the best food of the year, and our CD players are still full of Christmas music. It is so good to know that all the frantic activity (and intense entertaining) is over for another year. Let the quiet rejoicing continue. Bask in the joy of your redemption for the full 12 days.
And don’t forget to bring a bell of some kind to worship with you on Sunday. The First Sunday after Christmas is Bell Sunday around here. Rejoice!
The use of bells in the worship of our God and Father traces WAY back. God likes bells!
In Exodus 28:34-35, God commanded that the vestments of His priests should have “gold bells and pomegranates” around the hem. Pictures of pomegranates were embroidered around the hem of the priests’ robes, with small golden bells sewn between each pair. Every time the priest took a step, the music of the bells was like a little hymn praising God and calling people to remember Him, love Him and glorify Him. (Zechariah 14:20)
In Psalm 150:5 we are called to “Praise God with sounding cymbals, with clanging cymbals,: And in those days, cymbals did not look like they do today. The Greek word “kumbalon” means cup. Ancient cymbals were shaped in the form of large water pitchers with open mouths — making them basically bells!
And so it is that bells were used in the Old Covenant worship to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” and to serve as a reminder of God’s presence.
During the earliest centuries of Christianity in the West, the Roman Empire declared it to be a forbidden religion. Christians were persecuted and killed for the first 300 years that Christianity existed in the Roman Empire. So, during the earliest centuries of Christianity, we did NOT ring bells in worship because bells are LOUD.
However, during those years, there were special messengers who went from door to door to announce that a secret worship service was being held.
They would knock on the door with a wooden hammer — which was the signal for the Christians who lived inside to go to the previously designated secret place for worship and to receive the Holy Sacrament.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity has preserved the memory of this ancient custom at the monasteries on Mt. Athos. These monasteries still use an instrument called a semantron to call the monks to worship. A semantron is a board and hammer.
These monks say that use of the semantron goes all the way back to the days of Noah. They say that Noah used a semantron to call the animals into the ark.
Just as the ark was the means of salvation from the flood, so is the Church the means of salvation from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and so the Eastern Orthodox Christians used the wooden board and hammer of the semantron to call Christians to worship, until later bells replaced the use of the semantron — except at the monasteries on Mt. Athos.
Once it was not against the law to be Christian, bells were introduced again right away. By the year 535 AD, Gregory of Tours writes that bells are frequently used by churches to call Christians to worship. He writes that there were “tower bells” used to call people to worship, to accompany the body in funeral rituals, to celebrate weddings, to announce the beginning of a time of fasting, and to joyfully proclaim the beginning of a feast — such as Christmas or Easter.
Christians love bells!
We ring them in obedience to God’s command to “make a joyful noise.”
We ring them as a sign that something supernatural is happening in our midst. And here at Holy Trinity, if you listen, you will hear bells ringing every time we sing the “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the Sanctus) right before the Words of Institution.
We do this because at that moment of worship — from the moment the bells start ringing right until the moment when the congregation stands to receive the blessing following Holy Communion — it is as if the roof of our sanctuary has been lifted off, and you are singing praise to God with all the angels of Heaven, all the saints and all the martyrs. Something supernatural is happening … and so we ring bells to call your attention to it.
Ringing bells in worship is also a way to celebrate the defeat of evil through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (For this reason, legend has it that the devil hates the sound of bells!)
Plus, ringing bells is fun!! And God likes for His children to play and have fun in His presence.
The Processional Hymn this Sunday is “The Bells of Christmas”. We are singing it just to remember that the rejoicing of Christmas has not ended. Even though this hymn is a real “theological lightweight”, the titles used for Jesus do remind us of the great O Antiphons — plus, it’s fun to sing this on Bell Sunday. “The bells of Christmas chime once more; the heav’nly guest is at the door. He comes to earthly dwellings still with new year gifts of peace, good will. // This world, though wide and far outspread, could scarcely find for You a bed. Your cradle was a manger stall, no pearl nor silk nor kingly hall. // Now let us go with quiet mind, the swaddled babe with shepherds find, to gaze on Him who gladdens them, the loveliest flow’r of Jesse’s stem. // Oh, join with me, in gladness sing, to keep out Christmas with our king, until our song, from loving souls, like rushing mighty water rolls. // O patriarch’s Joy, O prophets’ Song, O Dayspring bright, awaited long, O Son of Man, incarnate Word, Great David’s Son, great David’s Lord: // Come Jesus, glorious heav’nly guest, and keep Your Christmas in our breast; Then David’s harpstrings, hushed so long, shall swell our jubilee of song.”
And I couldn’t find this hymn anywhere in English — but count on the Scandinavians. This hymn may be a theological lightweight — but it is lovely!(And if you want to hear and see the YouTube videos of this week’s hymns, just click on the title of the blog.)
The Hymn of the Day is NOT a theological lightweight. It is by Paul Gerhardt, arguably the greatest Lutheran hymnwriter and it was translated by Catherine Winkworth, the woman who is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the treasury of German Chorale to English-speakers. “Once again my heart rejoices as I hear, far and near, sweetest angel voices; ‘Christ is born’, their choirs are singing, till the air everywhere now with joy is ringing. // Hark! A voice from yonder manger, soft and sweet, does entreat, ‘Flee from woe and danger; Come and see; from all that grieves you you are freed; all you need I will surely give you.’ // Come, then, let us hasten yonder; here let all, great and small, kneel in awe and wonder; love Him who with love is yearning; hail the star that from far bright with hope is burning.” It’s that second verse that stops me dead in my tracks and drives me to my knees at the reminder of what Christmas is all about — we flee from “woe and danger” (sin, death, and the power of the devil) to the outstretched arms of our Redeemer, who invites: “Come and see, from all that grieves you you are freed; all you need I will surely give you.” Here is a beautiful version:
And here are the words in a Karaoke version, so you can sing along:
The Distribution Hymn is “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day.”Although its theology is not meaty enough to get into many Christian hymnals (and certainly no Lutheran ones) it has a great story behind it. It was written by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, during the dark days of the American Civil War. The poet’s son Charles had earlier enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Because Charles had come down with Typhoid fever and malaria, he missed the Battle of Gettysburg. But Charles did not miss the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. On November 27, 1863, Charlie was shot through his left shoulder, the bullet traveled across his spine and exited under his right shoulder. Charlie missed being paralyzed by less then an inch. His father and brother rode to Washington DC to bring Charlie home to help him recover, arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 8. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat nursing his son and giving thanks for his survival, he penned the following words:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, goodwill to men. // I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom had rolled along th’ unbroken song of peace on earth good-will to men! // Till, ringing, singing on its way the world revolved from night to day a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good-will to men, // then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good-will to men! // It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good-will to men. // And in despair I bowed my head; there is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men. // Then pealed the bells more loud and deep; God is not dead; nor doth He sleep! The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men!”
It’s true, the theology of this poem isn’t meaty enough to make it into most hymnals. And even the ones that do include it, never include the verses about the Civil War. But I like to sing it because it reminds me, like the bells of Christmas, that God is not dead nor does He sleep. The wrong SHALL fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men … and women and children. When? Ultimately, when Christ returns. (Which brings me back to what our Advent preparations were all about — but I digress.) Here is a wonderful version that I love — even though the melody isn’t exactly the one that we sing:
Our Recessional Hymn is that wonderful medieval carol, “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” This hymn is not only fun to sin but if you pay attention to the words you will find it is just silly: “E’en so here below, below Let steeple bells be swungen and ‘Io, io, io’ by priest and people sungen …” OK — not only is any genuine theology non-existent in this song, but it barely makes sense. Even so, it’s a great way to leave worship on Bell Sunday … and I just adore watching Dr. Tavella singing “Io, io, io”. (A silly pleasure, but mine own.) Plus, this hymn always reminds me of the many generations of Christians who have celebrated Christmas in their own time, celebrating their redemption with gaiety, frivolity, and delirious joy. And why shouldn’t we be delirious with joy over our redemption!
Do you remember the parable of the pearl of great price? (Matthew 13:44-45)
Do you remember how the man in the parable sold everything he had so he could buy that pearl? He gave up everything so He could have that pearl?
Well, for Jesus YOU are that pearl. That’s why Love came down at Christmas.
He traded everything in Heaven — everything on earth — for you (See Philippians 2:6-11); You are His pearl of great price.
And the bells of Christmas remind you just how much Jesus treasures you … how much trouble the Lord of the Universe has gone to for your soul.
So let the bells ring out. (And bring a bell to worship with you on Sunday!!)