Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Passing Bell's Question

“Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”  Romans 13:11

I walked down the street from the hospital with my faith renewed, full of joy, grateful to be a priest.  I had been called in a few hours earlier because Gertrude Worrall, my oldest parishioner, had reached the end.  She was 98, baptized at Christ Church when William Howard Taft was president, a saintly woman, greatly loved by her family.  They had surrounded her in the hospital room, four or five generations of them.  We’d prayed and sang hymns together.  There was laughter and tears, and she was delighted by all of it until she slipped peacefully away.  It may sound very odd if you haven’t seen one, but there are beautiful deaths, and sometimes, as a priest, I’m invited to be part of them.

I was walking a few inches above the sidewalk as I made my way back to the church to put away my stole and the communion kit.  And I decided this would be just the moment to expand the use of the passing bell at Christ Church. 

You ring the passing bell to mark a death, calling all who hear it to prayer for the one who has died, a stroke for each year in the person’s life.  A few weeks before I’d read Dorothy Sayers “The Nine Tailors,” that quintessentially Anglican mystery novel, which is really all about churchbell-ringing.  In the novel’s village of Fenchurch St. Paul, the church sexton rings the church’s passing bell not just at the end of funerals, as we already did, but as soon as the news of the death arrived.  In the novel, the villagers know each other so well that they can count the strokes, and immediately figure out who has died.  I thought this would be a marvelous addition to village life, so I stormed up the stairs into the bell tower, and began tugging the rope, 98 times. 

I stepped out of the tower, my ears still ringing, to find someone shining a flashlight in my face.  “What do you think you’re doing?” the gruff voice demanded.  It was the village policeman, summoned by a neighbor who had taken more account than me of the fact that it was now nearly 10:00 at night.  I had probably woken up half the neighborhood, he suggested, and every dog for a half-mile seemed to be howling.  I began to explain myself, and the good man shrugged a bit and lowered the light.  He was as agreeable to the restoration of medieval customs as anyone else.  But he firmly suggested I confine bell ringing to daylight hours in the future.

“It is high time to awake out of sleep,” writes Saint Paul, “for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”  Of course, the passing bell was intended as a means to carry news across town, and to call us to prayer for an old friend.  But it was more than that.  John Donne was thinking of just such a bell when he wrote while facing his own death, “therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.[1]

The bell was meant to awaken its hearers, to summon them to consider what a commentator I read this week called “the bedrock truths of life.[2]  Someone has died this day, perhaps full of faith and gratitude, perhaps in fear and confusion.  A soul will stand before the Judge of all, to give account, to hear the verdict.  Perhaps it will be “come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.[3]  And perhaps it will be “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.[4]  And you, where do you stand?  When all else is stripped away, how will you answer for your life? 

It is an inescapable part of the Christian life, the very first step of all, really, to hear that bell sounding and to know the true ground of your hope.  Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, one of the greatest Orthodox spiritual writers of the last century explained it this way: “There is always a moment in the experience of discipleship when fear comes upon the disciple, for he sees at a certain moment that death is looming, the death that his self must face. Later on it will no longer be death, it will be life greater than his own, but every disciple will have to die first before he comes back to life.[5] 

I’ve seen it many times in my work as a priest.  A few years ago, when I was serving at Christ Church we hired an advertising person to help us put together the publicity for a new service we were starting.  Before she started drawing the logo and crafting a strapline, she wanted to know what made people come to Christ Church for the first time. 

I thought over what our latest crop of new members had told me about what brought them to us.  This one had a cancer diagnosis.  That man had lost his job.  Their marriage was in trouble and they needed something to pull them together again.  They’d experienced the marvel of a beautiful child coming into the world, and didn’t have the first idea what to do next.  They like the music and the liturgy and the friendly people, of course, I told her.  But people mostly come to us when they realize they can’t handle life on their own.  You could say we’re in the crisis business.  When everything falls apart, we seem to be the only ones who know which way is up.  “Every disciple will have to die first before he comes back to life,” as Metropolitan Bloom had it.  The advertising lady said, very politely, that she’d never really designed a campaign along those lines before. 

This is Advent.  Today is the first day of the Church Year.  We begin by learning from the end, reading and praying about the last things: death and judgement, heaven and hell.  He will come at an unexpected hour.  Today is the day of salvation.  Cast off the works of darkness today, put on the glorious armor of light while there is still time.  Receive Baptism’s gift, the new life that comes from He who fills all His children with the radiant beams of His Presence. 

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  That’s the very first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, as good a place to start as any I know.  Above all, that’s what the passing bell asks you, perhaps especially when it rings at a quarter to ten on a cold winter night.   “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” 

And the answer, the one we confess today and hope to live faithfully until He returns: “[My only comfort is] That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil.  He so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head.. He assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.[6]

[1] Meditation 17, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
[2] “The Hour.”  Sunday’s Readings.  The Living Church. 27 Nov. 2016,
[3] Mt. 25:34.
[4] Mt. 7:23.
[5] Meditations, A Spiritual Journey, qtd. at “Soulwork towards Sunday: Advent 1A,” At the Edge of the Enclosure,
[6] The Lord’s Day 1.  The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Christian Reformed Church,

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