“Bells” was apparently my theme for the weekend. On Friday night, my family and I rode the Polar Express. Everyone boards the train in pajamas, Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is read, and they serve cookies and hot chocolate. Eventually we arrive at the North Pole (aka a small town in western North Carolina) and see Santa. He boards the train and visits all the kids, giving them a little bell, just like the story. On Saturday morning, I attended a bell-ringing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Newtown, CT shootings. It was sponsored by a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Our mayor spoke about gun legislation in our state, and they passed out little bells!
All of this got me thinking about bells and religious traditions. Bells are obviously associated with Christianity since most churches have bells hanging in their bell towers. Traditionally, bells were rung to gather people to Sunday services and to call the community together for other events, but bells have a very long and interesting history that expands well beyond the borders of Christianity.
Based on current archaeological evidence, bells originated in what is now China. The earliest bells were made of pottery and date to about 3,000BCE. By 2,000BCE, metal bells were being made. They appear to have been used for dog collars and horse-drawn chariots, but they may have served other functions as well.
Given these prehistoric findings, it’s no wonder that bells form an important part of religious practice in various Eastern traditions. Like churches, most Hindu, Buddhist, and Shinto temples contain bells that are rung before worship begins. People have various ideas regarding the symbolism behind these bell-ringing rituals, and the language differs between the traditions. Bell-ringing in Hinduism is said to ward off evil spirits and to invite deities to accept one’s prayers. Others say that bell-ringing is pleasing to God and helps one enter a peaceful state. Many Hindu temple bells make a long, deep, reverberating sound that is reminiscent of Om, the vibrational syllable meant to represents the universal, all-encompassing nature of the divine.
Buddhist bells also call people to worship, inviting them to focus on the breath or to enter a state of mindfulness. Householders often used bell-like sounds (including things like a ringing phone or a siren) as a reminder to release tensions and return to peaceful awareness. In the Shinto tradition, bells have been used as good-luck charms, offerings to the temple, or even as small tokens of appreciation given to a host.
Bells are not mentioned very often in the Bible, although the Old Testament includes bells, presumably small ones, in the priestly vestments. Here’s one of the passages from Exodus.
You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn. On its lower hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the lower hem, with bells of gold between them all around – a golden bell and a pomegranate alternating all around the lower hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it 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 may not die. (Exodus 28:31-35)
Bell-ringing in the Christian Church became common in the Middle Ages, although some church bells certainly existed before then. According to one source, Pope Sabinian (pope from about 604-606), was the first church leader to sanction bell-ringing at specific times of the day. I still hear church bells from various steeples across town at noon. Apparently, church bells can also be rung at 6AM and 6PM as a call to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
With all the mass communication available today, bells are no longer as ubiquitous as they once were. They don’t call us to worship, and for most of us, they are not a summons to recite the Lord’s Prayer. But they can still be used as a reminder to take a deep breath, to enjoy the moment, to appreciate whatever it is that we’re doing, and to recognize the sacred all around us.