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Ring Your Bells! – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Romans 6: 3 – 11
Psalm 114
Matthew 28:1 – 10

There was a dreadful custom at one time practiced in some Anglo-Catholic circles, including in a certain monastery on the banks of the Charles River. For the last two weeks of Lent, beginning on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, (which used to be called Passion Sunday), and carrying on until Holy Saturday, after each of the Offices, Psalm 51: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses[1] would be mumbled in unison. Our brother, David Allen remembers this going on here when he made his first visit to the community in the late 1950’s. He thinks it came to an end sometime in the mid-1960’s.[2] You can just imagine the effect of a dozen or so men, sitting here in the Choir, mumbling the psalm in unison. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

Now the purpose of all this mumbling, as I was once told, was that it was an attempt to give voice to the fear, the confusion, the sense of betrayal, and the disarray of those early disciples. As their world fell apart with the betrayal, arrest, trial and execution of their leader and beloved teacher all they could do was to feel afraid and lost. The mumbling was meant to mirror those feelings. But, as Brother David reports, while it was a fascinating tradition (to use his word), it was also excruciating! (Again, his word.) There is the story told that someone, who had come in off the street one morning, unaware of the reason for the mumbling and thinking it was a daily occurrence throughout the year, stormed out of the chapel declaring he had never been to anything so unedifying in his entire life! Fascinating? Perhaps. Excruciating? Certainly! Unedifying? No doubt. And just as an aside to any brother who thinks we should restore this custom, we’re NOT!

One of the reasons why I love Holy Week, and why perhaps so many come to the Holy Week liturgies, and perhaps especially to the Easter Vigil, at least here at the monastery, is that during this week, unlike any other week of the year, we give our bodies a full part to play in our worship of God. That’s really what the mumbling of Psalm 51 was about. People weren’t simply trying to be unedifying on purpose, by mumbling the psalm. They were trying to experience something in their bodies. The fear, the confusion, the sense of betrayal, the disarray of the disciples became their fear, their confusion, their sense of betrayal and their disarray. And they were trying to experience those feelings by mumbling.

And that for me is what Holy Week is, in part, about. Not that it’s about mumbling, but rather about experiencing with my body the events of those last days of the life of Jesus.

I can touch with my fingers the smoothness of the palm branch, as I feel in my throat the shout of joy hosanna! I know with my feet the wetness of the water and the coarseness of the towel. I experience in my mouth the softness of the bread and the sting of the wine. I can barely keep my eyes open, not unlike the disciples, as I keep watch before the Sacrament during the Maundy Thursday Watch. I experience the emptiness of my stomach as it gurgles during the Good Friday fast. I sense my throat tightening as I hear my own voice shout in anger crucify him and I wince in pain as I imagine someone breaking my legs. I feel the stiffness of my knees as I kneel and stand, kneel and stand, kneel and stand during the Solemn Collects and the Veneration of the Cross during the Good Friday Liturgy. I am overcome with exhaustion by the time my alarm rudely awakens me in the middle of the night and I drag myself down to the pantry to fortify myself with coffee before the Great Vigil begins. Hungry, tired, bleary eyed, my nerves and patience shot, by the end of it all I have spent too much time in Church and not enough time in bed, yet I can’t imagine spending Holy Week any other way. It’s then that I can feel it, like an electric flash coursing through my body: Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

We all, I imagine, know what fear feels like. We can feel it in the pit of our stomachs. We can know it as the hair on the back of our neck stands out. We can sense it in our tightness of our chests and hear it in the rapid beating of our hearts. We can feel it in the sudden, sharp intake of breath. Fear courses through our bodies and we can feel it. Indeed, it makes us cold and we shiver.

Those of us who have lived through Holy Week, indeed those of us who have lived through any season of our life marked by fear, confusion, betrayal, or disarray know what it feels like to be afraid; to be confused, to betray and be betrayed; to be disoriented, because we can feel those things in our bodies. But just as we know the feel of fear, so too can we experience the jubilation of joy!

Writing from Oxford in 1875 to Father Charles Gardner[3], then living here in Boston, Father Benson, the founder of our community says this: I have been thinking a good deal this year how this feast helps us to realize the unity of the glorious life which thrills through the whole body of Christ, the Head and the members….But [Christ] is not glorified in His own Person only. His Apostles had fed upon Him, had His body within them, by virtue of the Holy Eucharist…. He was in them…. Now … His body in them is glorified instantaneously with the glorifying of His body … Like an electric flash the glory of the Spirit shines out in the fires of Pentecost. The body of Christ, however veiled in our flesh, in our sinful persons, nevertheless cannot but have the glory of the Spirit of holy fire burning and resting upon it. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell upon the present glorification of our nature in our own persons, as members of the glorified body of Christ.[4]

People are drawn to Holy Week here at the monastery because it is a physical experience. We experience Holy Week, not just with our minds but in our bodies. We experience Holy Week in our exhaustion from too little and too frequently interrupted sleep; in our aches and pains from repeated kneeling and bending and standing; from the hunger pangs of our fast and the hoarseness of too much shouting and singing. We even experience Holy Week in our frayed tempers and lost patience.

But just when we think our bodies can’t take anymore, and we have to sleep, or eat, or take a hot bath, or even just be quiet and alone for a while, the shout goes out: Alleluia! Christ is Risen! and like an electric flash the joy of the resurrection courses through our bodies and we know once more the truth that Jesus is risen from the dead, not because we have been told it, but because our bodies have felt it.

We have felt the resurrection in our bodies because in the midst of fear or bitterness, we have been overwhelmed by a love which causes our eyes to tear up, and we knew the presence of Jesus in our life, and knew him to be truly risen from the dead.

We have felt the resurrection in our bodies because in the midst of anger and betrayal, we have been overwhelmed by forgiveness which causes us to stretch out our arms in love, and we knew the presence of Jesus in our life, and knew him to be truly risen from the dead.

We have felt the resurrection in our bodies because in the midst of death and sorrow and sadness we have been overwhelmed by an abiding sense of peace, and we knew the presence of Jesus in our life, and knew him to be truly risen from the dead.

We come to this day and to this place tired, hungry, sore, and perhaps even cranky. And I for one would not have it any other way. My body knows that it is Holy Week. I don’t need a clock or a calendar, because I can feel it in my back, and my thighs and my stomach.

But today I feel something else as well.

Like an electric flash I know the power of love to conquer fear and bitterness, and I feel it in my tears, and I hear it in the bells, and I know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

Like an electric flash I know the power of forgiveness to overcome anger and betrayal, I feel it in the warmth of an embrace, and I hear it in the bells, and I know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

Like an electric flash I know the power of peace to bring healing to a grieving soul, I feel it in my heart, and I hear it in the bells, and I know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

So ring your bells, because Jesus Christ is Risen, and love conquers fear and bitterness!

So ring your bells, because Jesus Christ is Risen, and forgiveness overcomes anger and betrayal!

So ring your bells, because Jesus Christ is Risen, and peace heals the brokenhearted!

So ring your bells, because Jesus Christ is Risen, and like an electric flash the whole creation, including our tired, sore, hungry bodies shout out: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So ring your bells and let the world know that Jesus Christ is risen today!

[1] Psalm 51: 1

[2] Brother David remembers that this was the custom of the community when he arrived in the late 1950’s and was carried on until sometime in the early to mid-1960’s.

[3] Charles Edwyn Gardner SSJE came to our community in 1870, was professed on 17 August 1885 and died a Poona, India on 7 June 1908

[4] Benson, Richard Meux; Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, Mowbray, 1920, page 268. Father Benson in this passage is speaking specifically about Ascension and Pentecost but elsewhere in the letter he speaks of the glory of the resurrection life that we can contemplate through the Holy Eucharist.

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1 Comment

  1. Mike Stevens on April 16, 2017 at 15:46

    Such a wonderful way to bring all of Holy Week together! I related to all of what you preached, Brother James; and the vividness and tangible concreteness of your sermon made it very real for me in my life. To you and all of the Brothers and those associated with making this Holy Week and Easter so rich and blessed, thank you. You all are a gift and a blessing. I am grateful to be invited into the Monastery and share a part of your lives. You are all in my prayers.

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