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The Spirituality Behind Church Bells

V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian


Church bells form part of the liturgical tradition of all orthodox churches, including the Armenian Apostolic Church. In some regions, Armenian churches have no church bells due to government regulations, or are prohibited from ringing bells outside the church. This reflection focuses on both the practice and the spirituality behind church bells.

            According to the “Christian Armenia Encyclopedia,” the usage of church bells in the Armenian Apostolic Church started in the second half of the 10th century[1]. Before this date, Armenian Churches made use of Semantron (σήμαντρον), a wooden or metal gong or rattle. In Armenian, semantron is called “Gotchnag” (Կոչնակ). Gochnag is still used in some monasteries, such as Sts. James Armenian Cathedral of Jerusalem, and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New York. The use of church bells has become an integral part of the Armenian Apostolic Liturgy and developed as an inseparable part of its architecture.

            In general, church bells are used to call and invite believers to gather for worship. Their peal serves as a sign that service has started or a solemn event is taking place in the church. During the service, some glorious hymns, such as “Parks I Partsouns” («Փառք Ի Բարձունս» - Glory in the Highest) and “Sourp Sourp” («Սուրբ, Սուրբ» - Holy, Holy) are also accompanied by ringing bells to show their joyous nature. In addition, when the Catholicos arrives at any church, he is welcomed with the joyous ringing of bells. Church bells also ring when there is an event like a funeral or a natural disaster, but with a slow rhythm.

            Today’s use of church bells draws from two different biblical references, which explain both the spirituality and the meaning behind this practice.

a)     In the Old Testament, God asks the Israelites to add “bells of gold” on their garments between different colored pomegranates, which are woven tassels. Exodus describes: “a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell, and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers and its sound are heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord and when he comes out, that he may not die” (Exodus 28:34-35). It is not a coincidence that the bells used to be hung in between the pomegranates as they symbolize life and fertility. These bells symbolize the life of the priest. In other words, he is spiritually alive, and he can enter into the Holy of holies in the Temple. Only the priest was permitted to enter the holiest part of the temple, which was closed by a curtain. If the bells stopped ringing, it meant he died in the holiest place because he had entered without being holy. His leg would be tied with a rope, so non-priests can remove him without entering the Holy of holies.

This passage from the Old Testament describes bells as signs of spiritual liveliness. God is praised and glorified in that holy place in the temple. Applying Aaron’s garments to the circumstances of today, the bell helps the faithful and navigates them with its peal to where the worship is taking place. In a spiritual sense, it signals where Jesus, our Eternal Priest, is “walking” and the faithful follow Him with prayers and join in the spiritual life. For the same reason, small bells are hung from the incense burner.

b)    Jesus spoke about His Second Coming, which would take place unexpectedly. He mentions signs of His Second Coming in the Gospel of Matthew: “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in Heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31). He specifically mentions the trumpet but the key point is that there will be a signal announcing that the Lord is here for His Second Coming, and it will serve to gather the people around Him.

In an everyday sense, the church bells play the same role as the trumpet, to gather us around our Lord Jesus Christ to worship Him. At the same time, they “train” us spiritually to be ready to hear His voice and feel His presence. With training, we will recognize the voice of His coming, and our steps will lead us naturally. If we are not used to the sound, we will be afraid of His voice.


            To conclude, the spiritual meaning behind the church bells is intended to serve as an invitation for us to participate in the holiness of God. Jesus exhorts us to stay awake spiritually, not to fall into the heaviness of sleep, which naturally leads us to death. Bells are hung from the necks of animals and the shepherd knows where they are. Jesus, our True Shepherd, knows where we are individually and collectively. We need to be reminded of where He is to follow Him and not lose His company. Without Him, we are lost to death. Even if we do not have a church with  bells that ring during its services, we should not lose the sound of His great presence in the depth of our spirits. 

[1] «Քրիստոնյա Հայաստան Հանրագիտարան», գլխ. Խմբ. Յովհաննէս Այվազեան, Հայկական Հանրագիտարան Հրատարակչատուն, Երեւան, 345։


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