By Pastor Glenn Pease
Bells are one of the common symbols of Christmas, because all through history, bells have been used to play the role of the angels on that first Christmas. Bells ring forth the message of joy. The bell and the babe of Bethlehem are linked in many ways. Nowhere is this more evident, than when you compare the history of our famous Liberty Bell with that of the Christ-child.
Both were designed to convey a message of good news. Jesus was God's Word, and He came to be heard. He came to sound forth a message of joy and liberty. This was the purpose of the Liberty Bell, as well. It was originally ordered by William Penn, the Christian founder of Pennsylvania. It was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of religious freedom in Pennsylvania from 1701-1751. The inscription on the bell is from Lev. 25:10, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." This bell, like the babe of Bethlehem, was to bring good news of great joy to all people.
The Liberty Bell was not cast and hung to ring happily ever after, but like the babe of Bethlehem, it had a battle for survival. The bell became famous on July 8, 1776, when the first public reading of the Declaration Of Independence took place in Philadelphia. The bell began it's jubilant ringing in the tower of Independence Hall. That made the bell a great symbol of the birth of freedom. The star of Bethlehem was a symbol of the birth of the King of freedom, who came to set us free from the bondage to sin. Such symbols are a threat to those who oppose liberty.
Herod would shoot the star from the sky, if he could, and so he sent his troops to silence the Word, residing in that babe of Bethlehem. The bell was the object of a Herod like plot, as well. The British General Howe, and 17,000 troops attacked Philadelphia in 1777. They fought their way to the Liberty Bell to destroy this symbol of American freedom. Like Herod, they came close to succeeding in their evil plot. They came within a rifle shot of the bell. But in the night, the Americans lifted the 2,000 pound bell from the tower. They put it on a farm wagon, covered it with potato sacks, and got it to the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown. It remained hidden there for nearly a year. The babe of Bethlehem was taken off to Egypt, and so both Herod and Howe were foiled in their attempts to destroy the babe or the bell.
Both of them came back. Jesus returned to a life of teaching and service to His people, and the Liberty Bell was returned to the tower in Independence Hall, where it rang out for many great events. On July 8,1835, it was tolling for the funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall. It was at this time that it cracked and was silenced. The babe of Bethlehem was also silenced after much blessed service, and was also broken on the cross.
The parallel of the babe and the bell does not end there. The Liberty Bell was given a resurrection, and the crack was filled in. It was ringing again in 1846 for the birthday of George Washington. But near noon it cracked again, and after that brief restoration, it has been silent ever since. Jesus also rose from the silence of the grave and after a brief time with His disciples, He ascended to the Father. This fascinating parallel of the babe and the bell introduces us to the role that bells have played in the history of Christmas. We do not hear the angels, as did the shepherds, but if we listen to the Christmas bells, and know their history, we can hear the same message that leads to the Savior.
The wise men were led by sight to the Savior. God gave them a star. But the shepherds were led by sound. God gave them a message through the ear. Both are a part of God's methods, and both of them touch us all, in the sounds and sights of Christmas. We live in a visual oriented culture, and are more impressed by sight, than sound. But we need to learn to listen too, for by means of the ear we can enter more deeply into the full message of Christmas. Sound has the ability to produce emotion. The sound of bells can move us to enjoy God's gift all the more, if we know their history.
There is not a lot about bells in the Bible, but the little there is, tells us that God loves the sound of bells. He had them play a role in the Old Testament that links them to the role of His Son, He was to send into the world at Christmas. In Exodus 28:33-34, we have a description of the robe that Aaron was to wear when he went into the holy place before the Lord. Little golden bells were to be all around the skirt of the robe. Their tinkling sound, as he came before the Lord, made him safe. The sound of the bells, was a message in music, that protected him. Anyone who sought to come before the Lord, without the sound of these bells, would die.
You can see the parallel again, with the babe and the bell. No one could approach God without the bells, and Jesus said no man comes unto the Father but by me. There is no entering the presence of God, without the Babe or the bell.
The only other reference to bells in the Bible, that I am aware of, is in Zech. 14:20, where the day of victory for the Kingdom of God over the nations of the world is being described. It says, "And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, Holy to the Lord." The bells are connected with total victory. So also, the Babe of Bethlehem was born to be the King of Kings, whose kingdom would conquer all the kingdoms of the world. It is no wonder that bells have become a symbol of Christmas, for God chose the bell to be a symbol of joy and victory in His presence.
There are numerous types of bells, but all of them have some positive value, and thus, have something in common with the Babe of Bethlehem. Two main characteristics stand out in the messages conveyed to man, by the Babe and the bell. First of all, their message is-
I. A LIFTING MESSAGE.
Good news is what they are both all about. Love lifted me, we sing, and in God's gift of the Babe of Bethlehem He gave us the greatest lifting love ever. The Christmas message is a message of love, and thus, a message of joy. The bells ring out this message of joy. They are frequently referred to in Christmas songs.
1. I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.
2. Ring The Bells Of Heaven.
3. Joy Bells Ringing In Your Heart
4. Jingle Bells.
5. Silver Bells.
6. Come On Ring Those Bells.
7. The Bells Of St. Mary.
8. Angels Singing, Church Bells Ringing.
9. Ring The Bells, Ring The Bells.
10. Christmas Bells.
All of these bells deal with a joyful message that gives a lift. The bell is the logical symbol of marriage. Wedding bells are popular the year around as symbols of love and joy. They are designed to bring a lift into life, and all relationships. God sent His Son into the world to lift the fallen. He came so low to lift us high. The sounds of Christmas must be lifting sounds to be consistent with the purpose of God. Bell sounds are ideal, for they convey, in a great variety of ways, the lifting message of love and joy.
The bells that ring at Christmas time
Each bring a different greeting-
The door bell rings and tells of friends
Whom you will welcome meeting.
The slay bells tell of snow paths
And of fun, they are assigned.
The church bells tell of peace on earth
And joy to all mankind.
Yes, each bell has a greeting
Though it has a different ring-
And may you share the happiness
The bells at Christmas bring!
Bells have the power to move us with sound. William Cowper, author of many hymns, gives us this graphic image, "The bells, the iron dogs of the air, Lift up their joyful barking." Thomas Hood writes, "Bells are music's laughter." Edgar Guest wrote, "I am not the kind that loves the past and all that's modern scorns. I merely say that sleigh bells were more musical than horns." What the stars are to the eyes, the bells are to the ears.
The star is a great Christmas symbol. It is heavenly, yet conveys light to the earth. This is symbolic of the Babe of Bethlehem, who was heavenly in origin, but brought His light to earth. So the bell hangs in it's tower above the earth, and is the most heavenly of instruments for music, yet it's joyous message is heard on the earth. The bells are like audible stars.
Holy Night on wings of angels,
Thou descendest to the earth,
While the stars in quiet splendor
Hail the advent of Christ's birth.
In the stillness of the evening
Bells are heard from belfry tower;
Melodies of sacred music
Lend their beauty to this hour.
-Tabitha Marie Ritzmann.
Bells are designed to get your attention. That is why the Salvation Army uses them. The angels had to get the shepherds attention, and the star had to get the wise men's attention. Bells have been used all through history, to call man to an awareness of something they should be in on. Bells ring to call you to a meal. The door bell and phone bell call your attention to the fact, someone is trying to contact you. The church bell calls you to the worship of God. Christmas bells are to call your attention to the fact, God has done something in the gift of His Son that is the basis for a never ending joy. Their sound is to remind us, Jesus lifted man from the pit of despair to the pinnacle of delight.
Tommy's report card was not as good after the Christmas holiday. His father asked him why? Tommy replied, "You know how it is dad, everything is marked down after Christmas." Unfortunately, it is true, there is a let down after the build up to Christmas. This is an emotional and psychological reality. But in God's value system everything is marked up after Christmas. God descended in the Incarnation to save man, and lift him to the level of children of God. Man is exalted to the level of infinite worth. Only the lofty bell can send forth a sound that symbolizes this marvelous life-lifting message. Let every bell do for you what the angels did for the shepherds. Let them call your attention to the Babe of Bethlehem, who lifted you to such heights.
Jesus said, "If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me." This good news is represented by a church in Holland, where the bell rings inside a large cross. The bell calls attention to that place where the Babe of Bethlehem laid down His life, and by so doing, lifted ours. We can choose what our minds turn to at the sound of bells. Longfellow chose to hear what God wanted him to hear, and he wrote,
The bells themselves are the best of preachers.
Their brazen lips are learned teachers.
From their pulpits of stone, in the upper air
Now a sermon and now a prayer.
Let every bell you hear lift your mind to think of that name that rings more bells than any other name on earth, and which will ring the bells of heaven, forever. Secondly, the message of the Babe and the bell is-
II. A LIBERATING MESSAGE.
If love is the cause of Christmas, then liberty is it's effect. The goal of God in giving His Son is, that man might be set free from his bondage to sin. Even the angels were so excited about this message of liberation that they broke forth in praise, "glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests."
Heaven and earth are brought together in the Babe of Bethlehem, and there is jubilation in reconciliation. Liberty is the ultimate consequence of love. If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed. It is no wonder that Christians in the South have celebrated Christmas with fireworks. Like the 4th of July, it is a celebration of liberty. Again, this is why the bell is linked with the Babe, for all through history the bell has been a messenger of liberty.
All through the middle ages every town had it's bell. The bell was the soul of the town. The church bell regulated life for many centuries. It called people to rise from sleep, to work, to worship, and to battle. The first thing a conqueror did when he took a town, was to remove the bell from the church tower. As long as that bell was pealing, the town was free. Silence the bell, and the town had lost it's liberty. The sound of the bell and liberty were synonymous. If a city was captured, everyone would wait in suspense to see if the enemy could be thrust back. If the defending forces were successful, the bells would signal the victory. Then joy and jubilation would fill the city along with the sound of the bell. Hitler silenced many of the churches of Europe by melting down their bells to make cannons. But there were plenty of them left, to ring in jubilation, at his defeat.
In 610 A. D., the barbarians were attacking the French city of Sens. Clothair, the Christian leader, ordered all the bells of the city to be rung together. This so frightened the invading barbarians that they fled, and the town was literally, saved by the bell. The bell, like the Babe of Bethlehem, has been a savior of the lost many times. A blind boy wandered off his course and was confused. He was lost until he heard the bells of the nearby church. That sound was his guide, and he was able to get back on the path. Bells have done on an earthly level what the Babe if Bethlehem came to do on a spiritual level-guide men out of danger.
That is why the bell became so closely linked to the church. The first bell makers in the Western world were the Christian monks. Bells were made for the glory of God, and they were dedicated to God, just as was the Babe of Bethlehem. For centuries no church was considered complete until it's bell was installed. The bells in the Kremlin in Russia were once the bells of a church.
Paul Revere is famous for his horse ride to warn that the British were coming, but he did something over his life-time most Americans are not aware of. He was the most famous bell maker in American history. 37 of the 48 big bells he made are still in existence, and they still ring forth the message of liberty. Many of his bells are church bells. His masterpiece, made the year before he died in 1817, hangs in Kings Chapel in Boston. The first bell he made in Boston in 1792, still is used today in the St. James Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Mass. Revere and his sons made about 400 bells. He and some friends, as young boys, got involved in ringing the church bells. He fell in love with bells, and they became a major part of his life. He produced bells that ended up in many churches. They continue to this day to ring out the joyous sounds of the Christmas season.
Revere did not make them all, however, for there were many bell makers. The largest bell in the world, that is a tuned bell, which weighs 20 and a half tons, hangs in the Riverside Cathedral in New York. The worlds largest bell is dedicated to ringing forth the message of love and liberty that came into this world in God's Christmas package. Jesus transformed everything He touched. He touched the bell, and ever since the bell has been a primary tool for expressing, "Joy to the World the Lord Has Come."
Henry Longfellow was one of the greatest American poets. On Christmas day, in 1863, Longfellow heard the church bells ringing, and he questioned their message. The United States was engaged in bitter Civil War. He questioned how we could feel joy in the midst of such war. He thought deeply on the message of the bells, and then concluded their message would go on ringing long after the war had ceased. This motivated him to write the poem that has become a famous Christmas hymn-I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day. The battle of pessimism and optimism is written into this song.
And in despair I bowed my head,
there is no peace on earth I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men.
As he listened to the bells, his spirit was lifted and liberated from this despair. He wrote,
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth good will to men!
The bells of Christmas represent the optimism and hope that God sent to this world in His Son. Tennyson, another great poet, wrote,
The time draws near the birth of Christ
The moon is hid, the night is still.
The Christmas bells, from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.
Rise, happy morn, rise, holy morn;
Draw forth the cheerful day from night
O Father, touch the east, and light
The light that shown when hope was born.
The Babe and the bell bring in and ring in the message of liberating hope. Most of the poetry written about bells can be easily applied to the Babe of Bethlehem. They both bring the same liberating message.
John Greenleaf Whittier, when he heard the constitutional amendment had passed to abolish slavery and set masses of people free, wrote a poem that fits the finished work of Christ on the cross.
It is done!
Clang of bell and roar of gun
Send the tidings up and down
How the belfries rock and reel!
How the great guns, peal on peal,
Fling the joy from town to town!
Ring, O Bells!
Every strike exalting tells
Of the horrid hour of crime,
Loud and long, that all may hear
Ring for every listening ear
Of eternity and time.
The Bible, history, poetry, and experience, link the Babe and the bell, for both of them sound forth a message of liberty. Let every bell you hear make you think of God's greatest gift-the Lord Jesus, who lifted and liberated us, and gave us this great day of celebration called Christmas.
Some softly-hidden magic dwells
Within the sounds of Christmas bells.
Some lovely note that must belong
In that triumphant, far-off song
The angel sang above the earth
In joyous welcome to His birth.
In 1953 a collection of the chains and shackles that were once used to hold the mentally ill as prisoners, was taken to a foundry, and made into a 300 pound bell. In 1958 it was taken to the White House where it's ringing proclaimed a new era of freedom for the mentally ill. As the compassion of Christ moved through history, lifting and liberating the oppressed, the bell was used to be a messenger of the good news. Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth good will to men-that is the good news proclaimed to all the world by the Babe and the bell.
Ring louder, ye bells of the Christmastide;
Ye heralds, re-echo it far and wide;
Tell out to the nations again and again,
The Gospel of peace, good will to men.