Friday, March 21, 2008

March 21, 2008 - For Whom the Bell Tolls

Today is Good Friday. The tradition in our community is for several of the churches to come together for an ecumenical worship service. The service, which lasts from noon till 3 p.m., includes sermons and musical contributions by a number of different people. Worshipers come and go within that time period, as they are able. This year, our church is playing host.

Some years I’m one of the preachers, but this time around, the only thing I have to do is offer some words of welcome at the beginning and generally hang around the fringes, giving a nod to each of my colleagues when it’s time for them to step up to the chancel and deliver their message.

The service ends with “The Tolling of the Bell” – a note of solemnity that has a distinctly old-fashioned quality to it. Because I haven’t arranged ahead of time for anyone else to do this, I decide to pull on the rope myself.

OK, I’ll admit it. I could have delegated this small task, but didn’t. For some odd reason, I like to ring the bell. There’s something earthy and satisfying about grasping hold of the rope, placing each of my hands just above the strategically-placed knots, and giving it just the right sort of sharp tug, evoking a resounding “bong” from high overhead.

Thirty-three times I pull on that rope: one tug for each year of Jesus’ life on earth. In between each sounding of the bell, I pause for a second or two. During those intervals, I can hear, through a nearby stained-glass window, traffic noise coming from the street outside.

Here in the church, we’ve just finished three hours of scripture readings, sermons and achingly beautiful music, that together tell the story of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross. The pace is slow: it reminds me of the sort of suspension of time that takes place in a hospital room, with a family gathered around their loved one, waiting for death to bring blessed release. Outside, there are people going about their daily lives, oblivious to the drama taking place within these walls.

I find myself wondering what those people in the street outside are thinking, as they hear the tolling of the bell. Thirty-three slow and steady soundings of a church bell takes a rather long time. It goes on for two or three minutes, at least. In an earlier era of our history, when church bells were used to signal fires, national emergencies and the like, not to mention ecclesiastical observances, the whole town would have stopped whatever they were doing to ponder the import of that echoing sound. Then again, in that earlier era – when the church played a bigger role in civic life – most people wouldn’t have wondered what all the bell-ringing was all about. Good Friday, three o’clock – they would have just known, without having to ask.

Today, though – who can say? Why, there are even some stores that offer Good Friday Sales – as though any day off work and school is a prime opportunity to pull out the plastic and bring home the bacon.

The cancer community’s like that, too, in a way. We whose lives have been touched by this disease hear the distant tolling of a bell, resounding through our consciousness. Outside, life goes on, oblivious. Inside, we look at one another, and know.

1 comment:

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

I appreciated reading your description of an experience that stimulates many senses: the scratchiness of the rope and weight againt your muscles, the shadows of the bell, and, of course, the musical tones in your ears. The image conveys a sense of slowing down, since you can't ring the bells quickly - and wouldn't, if you could.
As a cancer survivor, perception of time is changed forever. Numbering our days helps us live most fully.
Wishing you a peaceful and meaningful Easter. With hope,