Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
– John Donne
I admit it – I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned bell tower. My alma mater, Marquette University, has a beauty of a carillon tower that played every Tuesday afternoon when I was an undergraduate, usually ringing out a peppy “Ahoya!” for all to hear. (One lazy summer day as a campus tour guide, I got to plunk out Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer on it.)
But bells aren’t just for fun.
The Mass for Palm Sunday of the Passion of Jesus begins by celebrating his triumphant procession into Jerusalem. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Before long, though, the joy flips to sadness as the psalmist cries, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” This emotional about face always catches me by surprise.
This past Sunday, my mind was wandering a bit during the lengthy reading of the Passion narrative when suddenly a single, sobering bell tolled. Then again. And again. It chased away my wandering thoughts, and allowed my mind to refocus on the unsavory details of Jesus’ betrayal, torment, and death.
This put me in mind of another sobering bell clang. It was the Saturday after Easter, the year 2005. My mom called all of us into the den. We sank silently into the couch, watching the largest of the Vatican’s bells – all 19,731 pounds of it – swing mournfully as it announced the death of John Paul II. The campanone rang from the top of St. Peter’s façade for… how long? It’s hard for me to say, but certainly it was long enough to bond the throngs of mourners in the square into a moment of silent prayer.
The throaty peal hung in the air, punctuated only by the clapper striking the soundbow again. The reality set in that the man who had been Pope for my entire life had died. For most of the world, John Paul II was as familiar, and thus as distant, as any other larger-than-life celebrity. Yet at his passing, the world was caught in quiet, reverent attention by the ringing of a bell. I remember seeing a tear roll down my mother’s cheek.
We’d all just as soon forget about the unpleasantness of death. And there are plenty of legitimate distractions in life that keep our eyes focused on living, loving, and thriving. But when that lone bell pierces the air and the ear, it reminds us of mortality.
I’ve heard it said that sin leads to death. I’ve heard it so often, in fact, that it sometimes rings hollow amidst more pressing distractions.
This week, more than any other in the Church year, we are reminded of how humanity’s sins lead to an innocent man’s death. Holy Week is tinged with highs and lows. An intimate supper among companions leads to betrayals, both glaring and subtle. The Passion narrative reminds us of the soft underbelly of the human condition, where we are caught bartering, backsliding, and betraying our friends and loved ones. These days — these “holy days” — are when God cloaks his divinity, and submits to us at our conniving, self-interested worst. For these few days we listen for the toll of a single bell.
Back at Palm Sunday Mass, I am still transfixed by what the bell has done to my attention. What we don’t hear in the first Gospel reading for Palm Sunday is what happens right after that joyful palm procession. In Luke’s account, Jesus draws near to Jerusalem. He looks out over the city and weeps, saying, “If this day, you only knew what makes for peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
In the 3rd week of the Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius asks us to pray through these same Holy Week scriptures, and he suggests that we ask for the graces of “sorrow, regret, and confusion, because Jesus goes to his Passion for my sins.”
That lone bell clap reminds me that there is something – someone – beyond the noise of my own small world. There is someone who looks around as people honor him with praises and palms. These same people turn on him within the week. What must be going through his mind and heart? As he ambles past the crowd, perched on a colt, this one looks out over this beautiful, bustling, ugly, wonderful world. He takes it all in – you, me, everybody – and he weeps.