Bell WeatherBecoming the Great Us, Featured — By David Zimmerman on November 25, 2011 at 10:55 am
It’s beginning to look a little like Christmas. You know what that means? Bell weather.
During the Christmas shopping season (known liturgically as “Advent”) men and women brave the cold to stand outside stores, ringing bells and collecting change for the Salvation Army. It’s a tinny little sound, not exactly overwhelming but impossible to miss nevertheless; not exactly maddening but as persistent as Chinese water torture; not exactly guilt-inducing but an unmistakable reminder that (a) you have change in your pocket from your latest extravagant purchase and (b) there are millions of people in your country (and a billion+ people around the world) living in poverty. Tiny little bells, big big impact.
I don’t know how Advent became the season of the bells. It might be simply a matter of convergence: bells can drive people crazy, and so can the period between Christmas (our commemoration of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us) and “Black Friday” (the ominous name given to the biggest shopping day of the year). Here’s Edgar Allen Poe on the subject:
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Compare Peter Wilhousky’s lyrics for the Christmas “Carol of the Bells”:
Ding dong ding dong
that is their song
with joyful ring
One seems to hear
words of good cheer
filling the air.
Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o’er hill and dale,
telling their tale. . . .
On on they send,
on without end,
their joyful tone
to every home.
Ding dong ding… dong!
See what I mean? It’ll drive you nuts.
Obviously bells occupy more seasons than Advent. I hear bells every Tuesday, as part of a devotional “app” my boss leads us through during our weekly team meeting. Church bells clang through her iPad to mark the transition from the stress and chaos of my desk to the reminder that God is in his heaven and our work is only part of who we are and why we were created. Monks hear bells every hour to mark the passage of time and to call them to different moments of prayer. Firefighters hear bells at every report of a fire, sending them into heroic action. Bells have their place throughout the year. We’ve just sort of segregated them to Advent.
If you’re going to segregate bells somewhere, though, Advent makes sense.Bells function as a signal, and so does Advent. Advent signals to us that God has not forgotten us, that God still listens to our prayers and intends to make all things right, all things new. In this sense bells offer hope that we sometimes misinterpret as shame or stress. The madness and chaos built into Poe’s poem and Wilhousky’s hymn do us a disservice in that they distract us from the beauty behind bells, the privilege behind bell ringing:.
It’s rare for a bell to ring itself. Somebody’s got to ring it, and I like to think that the bells we hear during Advent, as maddening as they are, also serve to remind us of our own calling: we’re to offer hope to one another, to remind one another that God has not forgotten us, that God is still listening. The scriptures attribute beauty to messengers of hope, not because their feet are technically beautiful but because what they announce, what they offer, is itself beautiful. We become the thing we profess.
In that respect, bell ringing is timeless, the unending privilege and responsibility of anyone who sees God and hears hope. “Let freedom ring!” Martin Luther King Jr. shouts in judgment of the dehumanizing work of discrimination. “Peace on earth!” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has the bells on Christmas day proclaim, defying the violence of the day. These are not annoyances, unless you have given yourself to violent and dehumanizing work. These bells are beautiful, despite evidence to the contrary. And the people ringing them are becoming more beautiful with each ring.
I’m reminded of this by a little prank initiated a couple of years ago by the flashmob group Improv Everywhere. They’re known for random acts of silliness, like descending on Best Buy en masse in blue shirts and khaki pants or standing perfectly still in Grand Central Station. All their pranks are clever, but their most beautiful work to date is when a Salvation Army bell ringer suddenly finds himself surrounded by a heavenly bell choir. It’s transcendent in a way only the Incarnation of God can signal. I recommend watching it regularly throughout Advent–a gift to youfrom Becoming the Great Us.