Friday, March 29, 2013

March 29, 2013 – For Hmmm... the Bell Tolls

We’ve changed our Good Friday practice at the church, in the last year or so.  Faced with dwindling attendance at the noon-to-three service we used to offer in conjunction with several other churches in the community, we finally gave up on that service and decided to hold one at seven p.m. in the evening, instead. Tonight we’re offering what we expect will be a simple but moving Taizé service, backed by the Chancel Choir, who are in the process of learning what contemplative chants are all about. We’ll see if perhaps we can start a new local tradition.

Because noon-to-three comprises the biblical hours of the crucifixion, this year we simply opened the church for prayer during those hours. It’s our last nod to the Good Friday afternoon worship tradition. I wasn’t in the Sanctuary the whole time, but to the best of my knowledge no one took advantage of the opportunity.

That’s not a huge surprise. The contemplative tradition feels foreign to many Presbyterians. We tend to be a pragmatic bunch — not the sort of crowd who flock to an opportunity to gather for silent prayer.

Besides, to a culture that increasingly worships youth and health with a zeal bordering on idolatry, the figure of a tortured man gasping out his last breath on a cross seems the antithesis of any sort of victory.

In past years, at three p.m., we would conclude the community service by ringing the church bell thirty-three times – symbolic of the years of Jesus’ life. Although the Sanctuary was empty, I went in there today anyway, took hold of the bell rope, and slowly rang it. Thirty-three times feels like an eternity, when you space the rings out with a few seconds in between each one.

Outside, through the stained-glass, I could hear the sound of traffic and glimpse the wraithlike shadows of passing cars: people on their way to who knows where, very likely oblivious to the tradition that three o’clock was the hour of Jesus’ death.

If they noticed the sounding of the bell at all, would they realize what it was about?

I’ve always found the ringing of church bells to be significant in ways beyond words. In the year of undergraduate study I spent in Oxford, I used to look forward to the time each Sunday evening when all the change-bell ringers from the parish churches and college chapels, by common agreement, simultaneously practiced their trade. It was a glorious cacophony I will never forget, a mellifluous, rippling series of sound waves washing over that city of spires.

In years past, church bells functioned as many towns’ public-notification system. Like the Emergency Broadcast System that interrupts radio and TV programming every once in a while for a test, church bells fulfilled that function in years gone by. Public joys, civic celebrations, urgent alarms: all were heralded by the ringing of the steeple bell. In the era before loudspeakers and sirens, it was pretty much the loudest, most sonorous thing around.

That function has long since been supplanted by electronic systems of various kinds. Our local volunteer-firehouse and first-aid sirens are way louder than any church bell in town. In the days following Hurricane Sandy, the local Office of Emergency Management sent out daily information bulletins via telephone robocall. A viral message on Facebook, as we all know, can reach millions in the space of a few hours, if its recipients are keen to propagate it through their slacktivist mouse-clicks.

All that made me feel like a bit of a dinosaur, yanking on that bell-rope thirty-three times in an empty sanctuary, beside a street filled with drivers on their way to who-knows-what sort of Easter holiday sale. (I’ve actually seen a few ads for Good Friday sales in recent years. Now there’s a sacrilegious cluelessness that beggars the imagination!)

American hyper-individualism has been on the rise for generations. Has it reached its spiritual apogee in today’s bland acceptance of "Have It Your Way" McReligion as the national creed?

“Cast off the ties that bound
Our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds:
To that we give the shove.”

(I just came up with that. Inspired, or what?)

Pulling on that bell rope, I had a odd mental association with the time of my cancer treatment. That’s such an isolating experience. When you mention to someone, “I’ve got cancer,” you can see from the look in their eyes — the oil-and-water mixture of sympathy and fear — that you’re all on your ownsome when it comes to empathy (unless, of course they happen to be survivors as well). As for other neighbors, if they’re at all adept emotionally, they’ll be quick to share sympathy: but truly entering into the experience is — understandably — beyond them.

The bell-tone reverberates, over the parade of preoccupied passersby.  What can we do but sound it anyway, hopeful that, somewhere, someone looks up and displays a half-smile of recognition?