Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Bell Still Rings

This might seem cheesy, and not a little romanticized. On the bottom of this post is something you should hear. But first, some context:

Around a year ago or so a tiny gold bell was found while excavating the old city of Jerusalem. This tiny gold bell is 2,000 years old. It was most likely sewn onto the garment of a high official, ringing as they walked. Given the description of the high priestly garments in the book of Exodus, it is certainly possible that it could have belonged to the high priest though there is no way of knowing for sure.

There are obviously no photographs from that time period and little in the way of artwork that would clarify what that world looked like in a unified sense. Archaeology provides "pieces" of that world and we are left to try and visualize it. Both the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus and the four Gospels writers give a clearer vision of what Jerusalem was like in the first century in their writing. But again, the temptation is to see that world as static, almost non-existent.

This tiny little bell also survived from that time, and it still rings. This short sound clip gives you a sense of what that world SOUNDED like, if only for the few moments when someone who was considered important passed you by. It was crafted, found to be useable, sewn onto someone's clothing as a sign of status, and presumably warn regularly. While I doubt that anyone focused on this little golden sphere, its presence nonetheless communicated a sense of awe or indignation, envy or pity, safety or unease. And that bell's sound let someone know that you were coming. If you were in the presence of the person who wore it long enough, you would've learned to ignore it. When someone first encountered the sound, they may have been struck by it's peculiarity. If you were blind, it was as sure a sign of status as sight.

Given his ability to mix with both the respectable and the despised, Jesus was undoubtedly familiar with this sound and what it meant. It may have been a reminder that he had left the rural and rocky Galilee and ascended to the heights of Jerusalem...a move from simplicity into the city. The juxtaposition of the homeless wandering rabbi and high society would have been clear in this simple distinction in dress. The sound of a lifeless gold bell "spoke" of the nature of its wearer, of his wealth and prominence. Upon entering into Jerusalem and being heralded by its shouting crowds as Son of David and the coming King of Israel, Jesus assured the rebuking Pharisees that “if these [crowds] were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40).

I love sound. Sound is more mysterious than sight. Most of the sciences seem to rely more on sight than any other sense, on the ability to observe. Usually, what we hear is treated with a level of suspicion: a testimony or a confession, strange sounds in an empty house, whispering strangers, the hints of unseen activity. There are certain things that, if seen, can move us or shake us up. But they are defined. The things we hear but cannot see force our mind to fill in the images because we can't stand ambiguity.

But our hearing can also make things real. Coupled with sight, it grounds our concepts. Today, most silent films seem to come from a fantasy world because most of us can't relate to soundless image. What we hear is important. I'm sure that part of what makes modern man so suspicious of religion and faith is the fact that they are grounded on testimony, on the things that we have heard from others. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans that "faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Believing what you hear is a gamble because accepting what you have heard as truth depends entirely on how much you trust the person speaking. And even then, questions can linger.

This is a bell from 2,000 years ago that still rings. And here's what it sounds like:

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