I want to let everyone know about a recent gift that our parish family received. Many of us were present on Sunday, October 13th, when the members of Holy Apostles and the Mediator were present with us for a very special and joyous morning of worship. If you missed it, don’t worry; there are going to be other opportunities in the future to worship together. As a thank you for the day, our dear sisters and brothers from HAM sent us a special gift: a set of handbells called sanctuary bells, or sometimes, sanctus bells. Here is the note I received with the bells:
“We are one, we are strongest working together in unity.” I Corinthians 12:14
Dear Rev. Stambaugh [on behalf of the entire parish of Holy Apostles, Penn Wynne],
Just a note of thanks for hosting us [on October 13th]. We did not want the moment to go without sending a memento to our joint history and ministry together.
Please accept these sanctuary bells as a reminder of our shared ministry as we press forward to serve the next generation of believers.
Yours in Christ,
Everett A. Gillison,
Senior Warden, Holy Apostles and the Mediator
Bells have been used during the Eucharistic prayer for nearly 800 years. They serve several purposes, both symbolic and practical. Perhaps the most straightforward usage for bells is in fulfillment of Scripture’s commandment to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” In the worship of the ancient Israelites, the priest’s vestments were outfitted with bells. This was not only to make a joyful noise, but had a chilling practical application. Once a year, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the room of the Tabernacle and Temple which held the Ark of the Covenant and where God’s glory dwelt. The bells would let everyone outside know that the priest was still alive. If the bells stopped, the people would know that the priest had been overcome by the glory of the Most High God, and had died. The people would then pull the priest out by a rope attached to his ankle for just such a purpose (see Exodus 28:25-36).
This points to one of the reasons for bells in today’s churches. They emphasize and call attention to certain moments in the Eucharistic prayer. They say, “Look up, something extraordinary, something supernatural is happening here, don’t miss it!” These moments include during the “Sanctus” the song we sing that begins with “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…”. When we sing that song we literally (yes, literally) join in the cosmic liturgy of Heaven, where angels and archangels and saints and our ancestors in faith are forever proclaiming the holiness of the Most High God. The bells remind us of the extraordinary power and unity of that moment.
The bells are also often used right after the Words of Institution, which are the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper: “This is my body…This is my blood…do this in remembrance of me.” A final moment for bells is at the Great Amen. This is a special and supernatural moment. The priest is representing the whole gathering of people when he or she prays the Eucharistic prayer to God. The final Amen, which we sing at Holy Apostles, is a very important acclamation by the people. When you say it, you’re saying to God, “Yes, the priest is praying the words, but they are really the prayers of the whole people. We take hold of those prayers for ourselves and we say ‘so be it.’”
So, you can see how special this gift is, and how it is a powerful symbol of unity and friendship. Everett asked us to remember our special relationship of shared ministry with Holy Apostles and the Mediator when we use those bells. They are a reminder that when we enter the Holy of Holies, when we join our voices with the song of Heaven itself, when we declare the words of Jesus and experience of the transformation of gifts into the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, when we acclaim together our shared thanksgiving to God, we do all those things in unity and fellowship with our sisters and brothers at Holy Apostles and the Mediator. It is truly is a special gift. My daily prayer is that God will bless God’s Holy Apostles both here in Penn Wynne and on 51st and Spruce with unity and strength of purpose.
Please sign the thank you card for the bells that you’ll find on the table in the office hallway!