This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Agape Feast - Why There Is A Need to Revive This Biblical Observance

There are many practices that much of the modern Church has lost that were practiced by Christians of old, and one of those is a meal called the Agape Feast (or the Love Feast, as it is known in some circles).  There are a lot of misconceptions about what this was or is, and among those misconceptions are the following:

1.  It has been thought of as the same as the Eucharist, which it is not.
2.  Some, including many modern-day Roman Catholics and Orthodox, believe the informal "coffee hour" at the end of Sunday Liturgy is the Biblical Love feast, but this is not so either
3.  Many, including a number of Protestants in the Southeastern US, believe the potluck suppers they have periodically are the equivalent of the Agape Feast, but this is not true either.

Therefore, being there are misconceptions as to what the Agape Feast actually is, I felt led to do a teaching on it here.  What you may discover may be surprising actually!

My mother's folks - more specifically, my maternal great-grandmother's family - were part of a religious tradition called Dunkards.  Dunkards are an Anabaptist/Pietist sect that originated via the efforts of a minister by the name of Alexander Mack in Schwartznau, Germany, back in the early 1700's, and many Dunkards, fleeing persecution, fled to the area of the Potomac Highlands of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia back in the early 1800's, and among those were my ancestors.  Although not raised Dunkard myself, the influence of their legacy has been in our family now for generations, and it is a great spiritual legacy to have because these people really lived their Christianity - my grandfather still speaks of the old Dunkard Church up in Sugarlands near St. George, WV, as a fine example of "7-day-a-week Christians," and indeed they did live up to that legacy well.   As part of that legacy, the Dunkards took the New Testament seriously, and one thing they practice faithfully even to this day is the Agape Feast.  Much of the way they observe this feast - usually twice a year, depending on the particular group - is very much reflective of the New Testament observance of the practice, and therefore their literature provides some rich material for me to do this study. However, I want to bring this back to the liturgical/sacramental expression of the Christian faith, and that is why the more I study this, the more I feel it could be something we as Catholic Christians could revive. 

As for the practice itself, it seems to be rooted in the Passover seder, as it reflects much of the seder in its observance.  When we look at the passage of the Last Supper in Matthew 26, we see that Jesus is observing the seder with his disciples in the Upper Room, and it is important to note something there - the institution of the Eucharist, the liturgical text of which we find in Matthew 26:26-30 as well as Luke 22:17-20, took place after the actual meal!  This is one evidence that they are to be treated as two separate observances.  There were also two other practices associated with this meal that need to be noted:

1.  Washing of the feet (John 13:5-12)
2.   Reconcilliation of the brethren, forgiving each other's faults and confession to one another

The account in John 13 has these occurring after the Supper, but among Dunkards and Moravians, this happens prior to the meal itself, as it is believed by them (correctly, I think) that you cannot have fellowship with your brethren if there are issues existing, and thus a "spirit of concord" is not present in the feast if any issues among the brethren are not duly resolved before partaking of the meal.  The Didache, a specific manual of Church discipline that dates back to earliest times, gives specific guidelines for this in reference to the Agape feast:

And when coming together on the Lord's own day, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions. In that manner, your sacrifice will be pure. And do not let anyone coming with a quarrel against a brother join you until they get reconciled, in order that your sacrifice is not impure. For this has been spoken of by the Lord, "in every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King," says the Lord, "and My name is wonderful among the nations."
(The Didache, Chapter 14)

Many of the same requirements for the Agape Feast, as a matter of fact, also mirror the reception of the Eucharist.  As a matter of fact, it is highly recommended by the early Church that all sin and conflict be dealt with before partaking of the Feast together, because the Agape Feast was also seen as an act of worship, the ultimate expression of Christian fellowship.  As such, it was also seen as a witness to the outside world as well, for if Christians could be seen to practice the love among themselves they taught, it would show the world around them that the love of Christ was a real thing that they too could have.  Thus, although not meant to be evangelistic - non-believers and those not in fellowship with the particular assembly were often discouraged from partaking of the Agape, due to the fact it was an act of fellowship among the brethren - it often was a powerful witness to the sinner and outsider.  The reconcilliation, forgiveness, and footwashing aspects could often be full of emotion too, as it broke down barriers in the Body and brought people closer (I will be doing a separate teaching later on foot-washing, as it is also a forgotten practice in the Church of today too) as well as expressing true humility as brethren to each other.  In short, the actual Agape Feast could be a beautiful experience.

Another custom that was often practiced - and still is by many Old-Order Dunkards - as an act of fellowship was the kiss of peace.  There were two ways this was done, but the Eastern practice - embracing and kissing on first the left and then the right cheek - is I feel the more desirable and authentic way (Dunkards do a kiss on the lips, men to men and women to women - that is the other method, but many people would be uncomfortable with that today, including myself).  The kiss of peace was a way of expressing the love of Christ to fellow believers, and in modern times it has been formalized and depersonalized to a mere handshake in many churches during the offeratory or other parts of the service.  It used to, though, be the standard way of greeting fellow believers.  All of these things likewise were important parts of the Agape Feast as well.
Now to talk about the specifics of the Agape Feast itself.  Ideally, it was always held prior to a Liturgy, usually the night before, and at certain times of the year (although some local congregations have been known to observe it weekly).  It is not a meal in the traditional sense, as you do not eat of it out of hunger - strangely, the traditional observance says you eat your actual meal before partaking of the Agape Feast.  Being it was considered an act of worship, it was eaten in humility and without natural desires and appetites dictating its consumption.  In the Dunkard tradition, the traditional Agape Feast often consisted of boiled beef, a thin beef comsumme, bread, and apple butter, with either milk or water as a drink to accompany it.  In some cases, it was also eaten out of a communal pot, but most today practice eating with individual dishes for their portions.  At the conclusion, the remainder of the food was often given to the poor or less fortunate as an act of charity.  As I have researched the practice though, I believe a better way of doing it is to have roast lamb, fresh pita bread, fresh parsley, and a white cheese with either chaimen (an Armenian hot sauce made with cayenne pepper, cumin, lemon juice, garlic, and fenugreek) or garlic cloves - the latter mirror the "bitter herbs" of the Passover meal. Wine, or a natural fruit juice or water, should also accompany the meal too.  And, although there is no set rubric on when to observe this, I would say that either on the vigil before Easter or Christmas Eve are good times.  Again, when the meal is partaken of, the remainder should also be given to the less-fortunate, such as a homeless ministry or something, and leftovers being taken home is not an option unless there are needy people in the church who could use the food - that would be a mandate then, as we have to take care of our own as a Body first.  It must again be stressed that this is an act of worship and not a dinner party, and therefore it needs to be eaten modestly, in moderation, and with a worshipful attitude. 

Again too, it is important that before the meal a spirit of unity in the Body is present, and therefore mutual confession - the old resolving of ought with our brother if any exists - is essential.  For those of us who are Catholic Christians though, it is an ideal time to also encourage our clergy to offer confessions too, as this is important as well. Then the footwashing, which may be the most humbling of all - I, for one, do not like exposing my naked foot to anyone, and this was a hard thing for me to personally accept, but God uses things like this to teach us humility.  Also, the washing of others' feet is a humbling experience too that is a lost virtue in today's Church - many Catholics do have remnants of this practice on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, but it really needs to be revived as a regular practice.  Finally, the kiss of peace - we, after all, are a spiritual family, and thus need not be afraid to express Christian love to eact other; it is an Agape Feast after all we are experiencing! 

The Agape Feast I feel is something lost on much of today's Church, which unfortunately tends to be a weekly assembly of strangers we say hello to and doesn't have a real sense of community.  The Agape Feast, if revived, could reinforce those communal bonds that we as Christians need to have with each other, and it could also be a time of healing and restoration in the Body as well.  Perhaps this is why today's churches are so weak in their faith - the sense of community, healing, and humility are lacking, and with "name-it-and-claim it" televangelists and "purpose-driven" pastors lifting up the "seeker" and individual often at the expense of the household of faith, it is little wonder America is going to hell in a handbasket! Healing and restoration begin with us, remember, and the Agape Feast is a perfect expression of this very thing.

There are a couple of resources I wish to recommend to you for further study.  If you want to learn more about the Dunkard tradition of the Agape Feast, please read The Love Feast by Frank Ramirez (Elgin, IL:  Brethren Press, 2000).   There is also a revival of this happening among the Maronite Catholic community as well, as they now have a practice called the Tauditho (an Aramaic word meaning "Thanksgiving") that is a Maronite adaptation of the Passover seder.  A guide for observing this, by Maronite priest Fr. Antonio Elfighali, is available online at, or you can order the booklet by writing  These are some resources that will introduce you to the practice of the Agape Feast as practiced by different Christian traditions.  Also, there are ample references to the practice in the writings of the Early Church that you can read up on yourself, and hopefully this will serve as a guide to direct you.  Thank you again for allowing me to share with you this week, and may the blessings of God our Father be with you all.


I don't often do this, but I wanted to make a "plug" for something this week as well.  A hometown friend and old schoolmate of mine from my elementary school days, Cheryl Canfield, is a talented singer who has recorded a very nice CD of old hymns in a "country Gospel" style.  Inspired by the old hymnal used in the Free Methodist Church in my hometown of Hendricks, WV, Cheryl  has done a fantastic job staying true to her West Virginia roots.  I had the privelege of hearing a track from the CD, and although not a big fan of "Country Gospel" personally, it was very well-done and she sung it from her heart. If you would like to get the CD, I think she is asking $10 per copy, and you can send your check or money order to the following address and she will make sure you get it:

Cheryl Canfield

RR. 1 Box 178-A

Hambleton,WV 26269

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fasting and Abstinence

Over the next couple of studies, I want to take some time to talk about some devotional practices that we as Christians partake in, and I want to begin by talking about fasting and abstinence.  Although technically this is not one of the seasons of the Church year when this is practiced (Lent and Advent are generally fasting and abstinence periods) it is nonetheless important because as Christians we are to devote time to the worship of our God, and that involves primarily 5 main disciplines:

1.  Corporate worship (attending Mass, other services, etc. to fellowship with the Body)
2.   Tithing
3.   Prayer
4.   Bible study
5.   Fasting and abstinence

It must be understood that none of these practices, in and of themselves, are essential for your salvation, but they are acts of worship and do keep your Christianity vital.  They are also the ultimate reference to what James 2:26 talks about:  faith without works is dead.  In other words, you can be a lazy Christian, never cracking open a Bible, never attending church, and never praying, fasting, or giving of your tithes to God's house, and it may get you into the door of heaven, but you won't have the vitality of the Christian experience in your life without an active practice (your works) of the faith that we have invested into the grace God gave us in our salvation.  Remember, God doesn't need us; we need Him!  However, He does love us, and therefore desires us to be in fellowship with Him, which is why Jesus died for our sins on that Cross.  Accepting Christ and being born again though is just the first part of the journey, and our salvation is a daily walk afterwards that requires us giving honor to God in our works.  This is why we give to God's house, we worship with our brethren, and we also maintain a personal devotional life that entails prayer, Bible study, and fasting.  When we do these things, they renew us, and thus we are able to commune with God the way He intended for us to do so.  That being said, the five basic disciplines I mentioned are not just mere obligations on our part to fulfill, but rather acts of worship!  As we actively practice them, we renew ourselves in spirit, and thus God can be more personal to us.  The works themselves, as previously stated, do not save - God doesn't need our worship, because He is God! - but rather they benefit us because they are our response to God's love for us.  If we think of these things more in that light rather than as just a formal set of rules to follow, we would benefit as Christians more from them.

Now, to talk about fasting and abstinence.  I suppose the first thing we need to do is clear up something about this by saying that fasting and abstinence are two separate things.   They are related to each other, but they are not synonymous terms.  Here is the definitions according to Church practice:

1.  Abstinence has to do with quality of food or other consumptive goods.  It is customary during certain times of the year to abstain from things such as dairy products, red meat, wine, olive oil, snack foods, and sweets, but also from non-food items - you can abstain, as a spiritual practice, from things like sex, playing games, and television also.

2.  Fasting involves the quantity of consumptive goods - all that means is that you eat less at certain designated fasting times than you normally would.  Usually,  that involves three things - fasting before receiving the Eucharist, eating one small meal and one main meal, or a total fast where all food is fasted except water and enough to sustain the body during daily activity. Oftentimes, fasting goes hand-in-hand with abstinence as well, especially during Lent, because although you are abstaining from red meat, etc., you also are eating less of what you are able to eat. 

Fasting is a normative practice in Christian worship, and has been so for centuries.  It is something we inherited from our Jewish roots, as fasting was a very important discipline during the Old Testament period in Temple worship (Ex. 24:18, Nehemiah 1:4, Jeremiah 48:5-8, among other references).   Often, fasting was also associated with humility and repentance, a renunciation of the pleasures that caused bondage in order to regain focus on the Lord and His worship.  This is still true partially today as well, as that aspect of fasting has carried over.  However, it also has a greater purpose, and that is of spiritual discipline - by learning to deny the flesh, we can focus more on God and His glory.  Ancient Eastern Orthodox ascetic writers described it as a type of warfare also against what they called the "Passions." (fleshly desires) in order to bring their mind and spirit more in conformity with the act of prayer to God (Procurat, Golitzen, and Peterson, Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church {Lanham, MD:  Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996} pp. 43-44).  As a result of this conformity, the practitioner is brought more into focus in regard to prayer and almsgiving.  References to fasting and abstinence are quite abundant among the early writings of the Church Fathers and other ascetical writers, and fasting was once a more important discipline than it seems to be today apparently.  This is truly a tragedy too, because there are great benefits to fasting according to the way God has directed the Church to do so, and we are missing out these days on a lot as a result. 

The thing about that is that too many modern Western Christians think that fasting is an optional thing, and thus it is largely ignored or dismissed as irrelevant for the days and times we live in because our society demands more out of us.  With "positive confession," "seeker-sensitive," and "Purpose-driven" heresies and fads permeating much of today's Christian circles, fasting is often seen by many contemporary pastors and church leaders as a legalism with little value, and therefore the discipline is not taught.  And, we see the fruit of that in much of today's "Churchianity":  Christians don't pray, they think "church" is some big party, sin and repentance are not even addressed, and as a result many people sitting in churches are little better than baptized pagans because they have never been taught spiritual discipline.   Those who do take fasting and abstinence seriously often have a skewered understanding of it - they treat it as a sort of "holy hunger strike" to get what they want out of God without understanding what fasting is supposed to be about.  In that regard, they are really no different than the Buddhists, Hindus and animists, all of whom have fasting as a part of their religions as well but in their theologies they "give to get," meaning they hope to reach some sort of "nirvana" or enlightenment, or they hope to appease their gods by fasting in order to gain some prestige or material wealth.  Many Christians too have fallen into that trap, and I have heard of people in churches, at the prodding of theologically offbase televangelists or ill-trained pastors, "fasting" to get a fancy car, a high paying job, or some other material perk.  They fail to realize that God doesn't work that way - if he did, I am sure many of us would be materially much better off than we are!  Again, fasting is an act of worship, whereby we deny ourselves physical pleasures in order to focus more on God and to also crucify our sinful flesh, as Jesus commanded - what do you think that whole "take up your cross and follow me" thing in the New Testament is all about, not to mention the many references about dying to self??  That is truly what fasting is about, as well as how many of the Fathers and Saints of the Church understood it.  Our understanding today could benefit from more study of the Ancient Church, instead of trying to make the Church more "relevent" to the worldy, secular culture.   That is something that Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and some of these other people would do well to listen to. 

I want to also now talk about some specific aspects of fasting and abstinence.  One thing to note is that one should never fast on Sundays, with the exception of the hour or so before partaking of the Eucharist, because Sundays are always days of celebration - each Sunday commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, although Easter (or Paska, in the Eastern Church) is the official feast of the Resurrection.  Therefore, even during Lent it is permissible - and mandatory! - not to fast or abstain on Sundays.   This is a teaching that also is often neglected by sincere but misinformed Catholics and Orthodox too, and I have a story to relate as an example.  A few years back, Barb and I had thought about converting to the Orthodox Church, and we began attending a local Antiochian Orthodox parish here close to where we live.  However, what I discovered was something that was disturbing - the extent of legalism and triumphalism on the part of some in that parish, to the point where they denied Catholics and Protestants were Christians, later dissuaded us from being part of that communion.  And, when it came to fasting, a couple of catechists as well as a priest there actually taught that if you even ate a fried shrimp or a piece of cheese on a Lenten day you would be in danger of hellfire.   What they essentially did in this church was to take ascetical monastic fasting regimens and apply them legalistically on their parishioners to the degree that it made it almost impossible to even eat!  It was only later that I understood that what they were doing was wrong, and I adopted the more realistic Western Church fasting and abstinence practice instead, as it was more in line with Church teaching.   Monastics have indeed had commendable fasting regimens, but I am sure they never intended those to be used so rigidly and legalistically as some of their spiritual descendants have done.  And, that made me look at some other bad practices I have seen over the years.

Catholics and Orthodox are not the only churches to practice fasting and abstinence, as the old-time Holiness and Pentecostals did likewise.  Having grown up in that environment, I was familiar with the discipline of fasting, and indeed there were some stellar people of faith in those old-time churches that sincerely fasted, sometimes for days, and they did so according to Biblical direction.   These people were also serious prayer warriors, and they considered fasting a normative practice to pray for revival, the lost souls of their loved ones, and for just getting closer to God.   Their fasting regimen was a bit different though, as many of these people took quite literally the idea of not eating anything, save drinking water to stay hydrated for health reasons, for up to 40 days straight.  God saw their hearts and honored that too, although it isn't exactly what the Bible taught or the Church practiced for centuries in regard to fasting and abstinence.  Nonetheless, they never pushed that conviction onto others, and their hearts sought Christ and His Spirit in spirit and truth, and God honored that.   Unfortunately, the children and grandchildren of those early Holiness and Pentecostal saints never caught the vision they had, and in many churches today fasting is rarely if ever mentioned.   That too is tragic, because one reason many of those churches are alive today is because of the fervent prayers and fasting of these wonderful people of God.  Now, I don't recommend that anyone do that, as a 40-day total fast is a tall order for anyone to fill, but there are some who feel led by the Lord to do that, and to them I say God bless their obedience.

Moving on, we're still talking about techniques of fasting and abstinence, and I want to give some general guidelines as to how it is done in both East and West.   In the Christian East, the practice is generally to abstain from red meat, dairy, olive oil, and wine during the four major fasting/abstinence cycles in the Church year, but some monastics also practice what is called xerophagy.  What that essentially entails is the eating of uncooked vegetables and fruits only, the consumption of water or pure fruit juice only, and nothing cooked, no dairy, no eggs, no meat, nor anything else similar.  It is an extreme form of abstinence, and if a person has the conviction to undertake the effort, it is noble and well within Church guidelines to do so.  However, it is not required.  In addition to xerophagy, another practice is also abstinence from worldly entertainments, sexual relations (if married of course, as unmarried Christians should not be having sex anyway!), and other pleasures.  Oftentimes, this goes hand-in-hand with the dietary fasting/abstinence, but is more left up to individual conviction.  It is also customary to re-direct resources or energy normally used in such pursuits and appetites to the Lord's work - volunteering more, giving money normally spent on items you are fasting to a ministry, etc.  That way, fasting and abstinence truly becomes an act of worship then.

In the Christian West, in general fasting/abstinence is confined to the Fridays of Lent, as well as to Good Friday and Ash Wednesday.  The rules of fasting are not quite as strict as they are in the Christian East, as basically the faithful abstain from red meat on those days as well as other things they may have personal convictions to "give up for Lent."  In general, fish and dairy are permitted on Fridays, but not poultry or red meat (an interesting side to this is that when Catholic missionaries first came to the Americas with the explorers and discovered beavers, Church officials allowed beaver to be classified as a fish and thus it was allowable to eat during Lent, although God only knows why someone would eat beaver in the first place!).  Also, abstinence from alcohol is prescribed as well during fast days, and among more traditional Anglicans and Roman Catholics no sexual relations were allowed during the fasting periods either.  Along with that, in both East and West, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, in order to prepare to celebrate the Risen Savior on Easter.   Therefore frequent confessions are encouraged (many Catholics today still go to confession during Lent, the only time they partake of the sacrament actually in many cases).  These are just some general practices, although much more can be said.

There are a couple of things I need to stress in regard to fasting and abstinence though that are very important:

1.  Fasting and abstinence are not only confined to Lent and other designated days.  As a matter of fact, if a person has the conviction and discipline to do so, a periodic personal time of fasting and abstinence is a good practice to get into.

2.  Fasting should never be reduced to a legalistic obligation - remember, it is a form of worship and not a mere motion you go through.  Therefore, the Church has always taught and maintained (although some of its leadership seems to be ignorant about it!) that we are to fast as we are able.  What that means is if you have health issues that preclude you from observing the fasting and abstinence the Church recommends, the Church is also flexible enough to take that into consideration and that person can fast or abstain from other things besides vital components of their diets that may be prescribed by a doctor or other authority.   This is where giving up sugar, television, or other things can come into play.  Fasting is not a bondage, but an act of worship, and anyone who teaches otherwise - even clergy! - is in direct defiance of the Church's teaching on the subject.  The important thing is that you are observing the fast or abstinence, and God will see that as does the Church.

I also encourage you to consult the local parish calendars that you should receive each year, because in general there will be days marked when fasting or abstinence is prescribed, and usually it is the symbol of a color-coded fish - if the fish is red, it means fast, or blue for abstinence (some days will have one of each too).  Generally too, if a specific day for fasting and/or abstinence does come along, the parish bulletin you receive each week should advise you of that, as well as providing guidelines (Orthodox churches are particularly good about doing this, as much of my information here comes from old bulletins I have archived).
Therefore, be assured that you will be informed one way or another.  And, if you do have specific dietary needs, talk to your priest, and I am sure he can work with you - in general, special circumstances for fasting are spelled out in church bulletins or canonical writings, but for your own peace of mind you can always talk to your priest too.  Hopefully this provides some direction.

That being said, I will conclude this teaching about fasting and abstinence.  I advise though that this is not an exhaustive study on the subject, but only provides some basic information to answer some basic questions.  Hopefully, you can use it to whet your own appetite to research it further, and one book I recommend is David Bercot's Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1998).  Bercot's book has direct quotations from the Ante-Nicene Fathers addressing many of these issues, and you can find a good article on fasting on pages 274-276, which I also used for research material.  Also, especially around the Lenten and Advent seasons, consult your local parish bulletins as well, because they often will provide inserts for fasting guidelines that contain valuable information as well.  That being said, God bless and be with you until next time.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Liturgical Use of Bells - A Theological Study.

The ringing of bells - it has been a part of Christian worship since the earliest times, and the variety of what they are used for is quite a diverse spectrum. Different traditions of the Church place a different emphasis on the ringing of bells, but nonetheless they are a part of our worship as Christians, and thus it is important to talk about their importance.  Some Evangelicals - many of whom are more into the so-called "seeker-friendly" rock-and-roll church, are so ambivalent and ignorant about this subject that often they chide our more liturgical churches for being obsessed with "smells and bells." Thing is, though, there is a biblical precedent to bells, more so than the practices detractors advocate, and that is what we are here to talk about today.

When bells are used in Christian worship, they alert us to a number of things:

1.  They express our praises to God

2.  They draw our attention to the holiest parts of our worship

3.  They serve a function of calling us, summoning, to worship and to service

It is also of note that bells play a major part in our hymnody as well, being that the handbell choir has existed since earliest times in the Church, as well as the carillon that many churches of all traditions have.  These facts also establish bells as a major spiritual warfare weapon too, as the devil HATES the sound of praise to the Lord, and the bell is the ultimate expression of that. This is why, in many Islamic-controlled lands, Christians are forbidden to have bell towers in their churches, because it threatens the demonic principalities that control Islam.  The dread of Satan regarding the praise of God is also the reason bells are a major part of the Paska festivities in Eastern Christian churches too, particularly among the Slavs, because on Easter Sunday the bells in the Russian Church are rung in proclaimation of the Risen Christ.  Personally, hearing the peal of the bells is something that stirs my spirit in a major way, because you can feel the praise of God rising to the throne of heaven with such a beauty and boldness that it touches the heart.  Bells, therefore, are not something to be chided and scorned by carnal "seeker churches" who seem to feel more comfortable with the devil's music, but are rather heavenly praise to the almighty God, and the Risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  As such, we need to revive their use in greater ways in the church.

Fr. Roman Lukianov, in his article "A Brief History of Russian Bells" (available at if you want to study more on the subject) points out some strong Biblical evidence for bells in worship, and briefly, here are some of those precedents he notes:

1.  Psalm 150:5 - this verse talks about praising God with cymbals, which Fr. Roman says resembled bells in their shape back in Biblical times.  A bell and a cymbal, both melodic percussion instruments, then would serve similar functions.  He describes them as large and pitcher-shaped, with a beautiful tone that successfully wedded the cymbal and the horn.

2.  Bell ringing served a similar function as did the blowing of the shofar in the Temple worship of Israel

3. Fr. Roman notes also that in the Christian East, wood blocks called semantrons were often used to summon people to worship, but after bells were introduced, they were more favored because they carried further and were more melodic in tone. 

As the article proceeds, Fr. Roman hits upon the most profound reason for the use of bells as he writes the following:

For people who accepted the teaching of Christ with their whole hearts, who made an effort to live their daily lives in accordance with God's commandments, a call to prayer was a welcome relief from the harsh realities of daily existence. Bells called people to another world, the heavenly world of beauty in the churches. The churches for them were heaven on earth, places where salvation was being taught, where sins were being forgiven and one was sanctified.

That is a beautiful explanation of the use of the bell in Christian liturgical worship, and in the case of the Christian Slavs, it meant a lot.  Slavs are noted for having a warmer, more expressive worship in their churches, particularly among the Russians and Ukrainians, than either the more cerebral Greeks or the intellectually-minded Latin Church, and thus this is expressed quite vividly in both their liturgies and the aesthetics of their churches.  The Russian word for orthodoxy, for instance, is Pravdoslavnie, which literally translates to "glorious truth," whereas the Greek translation of Orthodoxa merely means "correct teaching." There is a big difference in those interpretations for the same word, and personally I think the Russian/Slav term should more aptly express what our Christianity is about - we have been redeemed by a Savior who loves us, and though He was put to death, He is Risen!!  When Slavs first converted to Christianity, they did so with such a joy and sincerity that to be honest it should shame most of us today.  You can still feel that in their liturgies too, and I will tell you, when you see that, and hear those bells proclaim the Risen Savior on Easter at midnight in a Russian Liturgy, it will truly move you to tears of joy (the Russians have a word for that experience too - it is called umilenie).  Why have we chosen to neglect this in the West, and even among other Eastern Churches??  Fr. Eusebius Stephanou has often said that many people sitting in pews of many parishes - West as well as East, I must add! - are merely "baptized pagans."  Yes, they believe (less so nowadays than in the past) the faith of the Church, and yes, they know how to go through the motions of their religion, but they haven't experienced that Glorious Truth (Pravdoslavnie) coming to life within them.  We would do well to study the rich traditions of people like the early Christian Slavs, and to embrace that faith like they did, because it would revolutionize our Christianity if we did so.  And, the ringing of bells should remind us of that.  Being the lifeless, "cold-fish" mentality of most average Catholic and Orthodox Christians nowadays - they go to liturgy out of obligation rather than desire for the most part - it is somewhat understandable why some Evangelicals and Charismatics chide them about the "smells and bells," because frankly it is doing these people no good because they fail to understand the "glorious truth" behind why they worship.  However, the Evangelicals who do that offer a far inferior alternative - their worship, while spirited, is often entertainment-driven, emotion-based, and doesn't adequately express God's majesty in the way it should in many cases.  This simply means it is time for a restoration of these things in the Church.

In the Christian West, bells have an important function as well, especially in Tridentine Latin Masses and traditional Anglican Liturgy.   At key points during the Mass, a small set of handbells are rung, usually in threes, in order to emphasize something highly important and very holy.  In the Anglican 1928 BCP Liturgy, this happens at the beginning of the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts...") and also when the elements of the Eucharist are elevated and consecrated by the priest, the holiest part of the Mass.  A subdeacon or altar server, usually sitting to the right side of the altar, is the person ringing the bells, and the set of bells he uses looks like this:

These bells serve a similar function to the bells that one sees in the Syriac, Coptic, and other Oriental Churches that are often affixed to the repidia (liturgical fans) used in their liturgies as symbols of the Cherubim before the throne of God.  The bells on the repidia are waved over the Gospel book as the priest or deacon proclaims it, and often preceding the reading are the words "Wisdom, let us attend!" meaning that the Gospel is the core of the Liturgy, and the words of Jesus in it are of utmost importance. 

Repidion - Liturgical Fan - without the bell attachments.

Bells are also to be found on the censers of the Eastern Churches too, as discussed in the previous study, and their function there is of course to symbolize the praises of God's people being mingled with the sincere prayers - symbolized by the aromatic smoke of the incense - as both rise to God as a pleasing offering from the priest on behalf of the worshippers. 

A typical Eastern Church censer - note the bells on the chain

Fr. Roman also points out correctly in his article that there is a correlation between bells as used now in churches and the ancient use of the shofar in the Temple - in summation, both symbolize the same thing. 
Getting back to the Easter bells, I wanted to insert here what the zvons, or tones, of the bells used are, and this comes from the website of a bellcasting contractor and Orthodox Christian friend who provides much interesting and rich information on his site:


("Annunciation") Preliminary call to the major services. While reading psalm 118(119), strike the largest bell once at the beginning and once after every second 8-line section indicated in the psalm by a hebrew letter (12 times total). Alternatively, strike the bell once for each of 12 recitations of psalm 50(51). Blagovest takes a long time.

Zvon ("Peal")

Play the bells rhythmically. Depending on the bells you have and whether you’re using all of them at any given time, there are numerous ways to do this.


("Double Peal") Play all the bells twice by striking a full zvon, then pausing for a moment (perhaps continuing the pulse with the largest bell(s) only), and then striking a second full zvon.


("Triple Peal") Like dvuzvon, but play all the bells three times, pausing between movements (possibly keeping time with the largest bell). This peal is for the liturgy and at times of joy, and especially after the liturgy, it should last for some minutes if possible in your neighborhood.


("Chain-Peal") Strike the bells in order, beginning with the largest bell and proceeding to the smallest, each bell several times before going to the next. Repeat this chain as long as necessary. Used at any blessing of water. A single perezvon is struck only twice a year, on Great Friday before the Shroud is brought forth, and on Great Saturday, at the magnificat of matins. Always followed by trezvon. The large-to-small pattern symbolizes the self-emptying humility of the Son of God..


("Chain-toll") Slowly strike each bell once beginning from the smallest bell and proceeding to the largest. After the chain, strike all bells together; repeat several times. This is the funeral toll. Symbolizes the christian’s ascent from birth to maturity; striking all the bells at once here symbolizes death. Alternatively, symbolizes the ascent from this life (small) to the life to come (great).


(Vspoloshniy Zvon) ("Alarm") A frequent striking of the largest bell.

(information from

These bells are very large also, and unlike many liturgical bells they are cast to perfect pitch and tone in cast-iron foundries.  Some of these may weigh up to 20 tons actually!  I have searched for a good picture of Russian liturgical bells, and this is what I have found:

Much more could be said about bells in worship, but this is a primer course for those who may not be familiar with the tradition, theology, and symbolism behind them.  Perhaps in the future, as more information comes available, I will update the information here and provide a more comprehensive study.  Again though, next time someone mockingly derides liturgical churches of being mere "smells and bells," hopefully this will provide a resource to educate.  God bless.