THE BELL TOLLS FOR US ALL
5Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything. 6In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. 7Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. 8Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is [temporary]. 9Rejoice, young person, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things [you will answer to] God. 10Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are [fleeting]. 12 Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”…13The end of the matter; all has been heard. [With deep reverence, honor] God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of [every person].
(Ecclesiastes 11:5-12:1, 13, NRSV adapted)
Church bells go back centuries in the Christian tradition. Historically, they’ve hung in steeples in a special area called the belfry. Originally, bells were used to call worshippers for a church service. They were also rung on special occasions such as a wedding when they were called wedding bells. They would also ring for a funeral service. This was called the death knell. Church bells were also rung to indicate an emergency such as a fire or an invading army. During WWII, the church bells in Britain were silenced and would only be rung if the Nazis invaded.
There is also a tradition of bells on farms. My parents have a large bell from a farm once owned by my great grandparents. Traditionally, workers would go out very early in the morning. The first bell called them in for breakfast, another for lunch, and another for dinner. It was that third ringing that workers in the fields looked forward to the most. It meant the workday had ended and everyone should go home for dinner and a night of rest.
This reminds me of John Donne’s famous words from Meditation XVII, “No [person] is an island, entire of itself; every [person] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any [person’s] death diminishes me, because I am involved in [humankind], and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee” (adapted).
We all know our days are numbered. We all know that the bell will toll for us one day, but we cannot dwell on this reality. A fixation on our own mortality can rob life of its joy. Likewise, living in denial of death keeps us out of touch with life’s ultimate and unchanging reality. However, a healthy acknowledgement of life’s finitude can help us appreciate each day as a gift. I’ve always liked the line from a Frederick Buechner novel where he writes, “It’s best to make friends with the inevitable while there is still time.”
Qoheleth, the author of today’s scripture lesson from the Book of Ecclesiastes, tried various approaches to life before making peace with the inevitable. As the book opens, Qoheleth decides to investigate both “Wisdom (that is the path of patience and restraint) and Folly (referring to hedonism and reckless abandon)” (The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, P. Achtemeier editor, p. 259). As a young man, Qoheleth pursues excessive alcohol and sex but does not find life’s answers there.
Later he sinks his teeth into intellectual pursuits, only to conclude that the acquisition of knowledge without wisdom is vanity. In despair he proclaims that everything is vanity. The Hebrew he-bel actually does not just mean “vanity.” I prefer the translation of he-bel that means “something fleeting and futile” (Ibid.). By the end of the book, Qoheleth seems to have aged and achieved some measure of wisdom and insight into the meaning of life writing, “Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all…Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…The end of the matter; all has been heard. [Deeply honor and] respect God and keep God’s commandments; for that is the whole duty of every person.”
Which brings us back to John Donne. One scholar notes that in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Donne demonstrates the connection all humans have with one another. “Lines 1-4 contain a metaphor comparing all living people to a continent. Lines 5-9 contain a simile explaining that when one piece of the continent washes away, regardless of size, then the entire continent is affected. Line 1 emphasizes this interconnectedness with the [reminder], “‘No [one] is an island.’” https://www.brighthubeducation.com/ homework-help-literature/69485-for-whom-the-bell-tolls-john-donne-analysis/.
A British website, phrases.org.UK, reminds us that, “Donne lived in Tudor and Stewart England, and at that time the tolling of church bells to mark various events was an important feature of daily life. The tolling referred to in [Meditation XVII is], of course, that of funeral bells. Donne [believes] that all people are socially and spiritually interconnected…He seems to be saying that whatever affects one affects us all. This is highlighted by the famous 'no [one] is an island' line at the beginning of the 'for whom the bells tolls' paragraph.” https://www. phrases. org.uk/meanings/for-whom-the-bell-tolls.html
“There's some debate about what precisely was meant. Some think that Donne was simply pointing out people's mortality and that when a funeral bell was heard it was a reminder that we are nearer death each day, that is, the bell is tolling for us. Others view it more mystically and argue that Donne is saying we are all one and that, when one dies, we all die a little. This isn't as bleak as it might sound, as the counterpoint would be that there is some part of the living in the dead and that we continue a form of life after death” (Ibid.). There is some part of the living in the dead just as there is some part of the dead in the living. We are forever connected and inter-connected in this life and in the life to come.
When I read Donne’s line about the bell tolling for us all, I don’t think of it as a dreadful death knell. Instead it reminds me of the third bell on my great grandparents farm in Tennessee. When the final bell tolls for us it will be that third bell, the bell calling us home at the end of a long workday. This final bell means the work is finished, the day is done, and now it is time to go home. And so it is with those we love who have gone home before us. The final bell tolled for them as God’s way of saying, “It’s time to come home.” AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
All Saints Sunday
November 3, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Our God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, we turn our eyes to you on this All Saints Sunday. We remember those who have run life’s race before us and already crossed the finish line, attaining the reward of eternal life. While we give thanks that they now dwell secure in your heavenly home, we do miss them and grieve their passing. And so we ask for your healing this day. Heal our broken hearts, still aching with sadness. Heal our anxious minds, still distressed with painful memories. Heal our troubled souls, still fragile from the magnitude of our loss. By your grace bring us help and comfort, healing and wholeness, until we are all reunited once again at the last.
Through Christ our comforter we pray. Amen.