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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

Before the use of bells had become general in the Church it was customary to employ in their stead signal or sounding boards, called semantrons, which used to be struck with a mallet of hard wood. These are yet in use in most of the Oriental churches, especially in those within the Turkish dominions; for it is the belief of the followers of the Koran that the ringing of regular bells disquiets the souls of the departed dead. Hence it is considered a great privilege in the East, wherever Mahometanism prevails, to be allowed the use of bells in divine service, and but few churches enjoy it. Ali Pasha, in order to conciliate his Christian subjects and win their esteem, granted the privilege to the churches of Joannina, capital of Albania (Neale, Holy Eastern Church, i. p. 216). They were also allowed at Argentiera, or Khimoli, in the Archipelago (ibid.); and of late their use was extended to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, where the sound of a bell had not been heard since the time of the Crusades.

Of the semantrons there were two kinds, one made of wood, the other of iron. The former consisted for the most part of a long piece of hard, well-planed timber, usually of the heart of maple, of from ten to twelve feet in length, a foot and a half in breadth, and about nine inches thick. In the centre of this piece of wood was a catch in which to insert the hand while striking with the mallet. Persons who have heard these semantrons assure us that the noise they make when struck by this mallet is perfectly deafening. The sound emitted by the semantrons called hagiosidera (because made of iron) is generally very musical, and consequently less grating on the ear than that produced by those made of wood. These hagiosidera are generally shaped like a crescent, and their sound differs little from that of a Chinese gong. They are much in use in the East.

With the Syrians the semantron is held in the greatest veneration, for the reason that a tradition of long standing among them ascribes its invention to Noe, who, according to them, was thus addressed by Almighty God on the eve of the building of the ark: Make for yourself a bell of box-wood, which is not liable to corruption, three cubits long and one and a half wide, and also a mallet from the same wood. Strike this instrument three separate times every day: once in the morning to summon the hands to the ark, once at midday to call them to dinner, and once in the evening to invite them to rest.” The Syrians strike their semantrons when the Divine Office is going to begin and when it is time to summon the people to public prayer (Lamy, De Fide Syrorum et Discip. in re Eucharistiæ). The peculiar symbolism attached to this “Holy Wood,” as the semantron is often denominated, is, to say the least, very significant and touching. The sound of the wood, for instance, recalls to mind the fact that it was the wood of the Garden of Eden which caused Adam to fall when he plucked its fruit contrary to the command of God; now the same sound recalls another great event to mind—viz., the noise made in nailing to the wood of the cross the Saviour of the world who came to atone for Adam’s transgression. This idea is beautifully expressed in the “Preface of the Cross.”

That the Nestorians use bells in their service we are informed by Smith and Dwight (Researches in Armenia, ii. p. 261), who, though rather dangerous to follow on account of their narrow-minded bigotry, yet may be relied on when treating of subjects which do not excite their prejudices. They tell us that when the small bell is sounded the people cross themselves and bow their heads a minute or two in silent adoration. This is, very likely, at the Elevation.

With the Armenians there is an almost incessant ringing of bells during Mass. These bells are for the most part entrusted to the custody of deacons, who carry them attached to the circumference of circular plates held in the hand by long handles. Large bells suspended from the domes of their churches are also employed (ibid. ii. p. 101).

The Abyssinians, or Ethiopians, ring large bells during the elevation of the Sacred Species.

According to Goar (Euchol., p. 560), bells were not used by the Oriental Church before the end of the ninth century, when Urso, Doge of Venice, sent twelve as a present to the Emperor Michael, who afterwards placed them in the campanile of the Church of Holy Wisdom at Constantinople (Bona, p. 259).

At Mount Athos—called in the East the “Holy Mountain,” from the vast number of its monasteries—bells are very much in vogue. The Monastery of St. Elias, on the island of Crete, has some of rare excellence; and that they are held in general esteem by the Cretans themselves may be inferred from one of their ancient ballads, a stanza of which runs thus (Neale, 216):

It was a Sunday morning,

And the bells were chiming free

To welcome in the Easter

At Hagio Kostandi.”

The attachment of the Russians to bells is known the world over. Every church in the Kremlin is loaded with them; and they are of such enormous size that several men are required to ring one of them. The great tower of Ivan Veliki has as many as thirty-three, among which is the famous bell of Novgorod, whose sound used to call people together from very distant parts. This immense bell is, however, but a hand-bell in comparison to the great monster bell of the world, known as “Ivan Veliki,” or Big John, of Moscow, for which no belfry could be built strong enough. It weighs 216 tons—that is, 432,000 pounds. It is yet on exhibition in the Kremlin, where for years past it has been serving as a chapel, the people entering through the large crack made in its side when in process of casting (Romanoff, Rites and Customs of the Greco-Russian Church, p. 259; Porter’s Travels, p. 163; Encyclopædia Britannica, art. “Bell”).








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