Viewpoint: Wild Bells

Originally printed in the March - April 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Algeo, John. "Wild Bells." Quest  90.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2002):42.

viewpoint

John Algeo, National President


John Algeo[This viewpoint was written a few days before New Year's Day, 2002. It is published in this issue of the Quest because, as noted below, March 1 was the old New Year's Day.]

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
    The flying cloud, the frosty light:
     The year is dying in the night:
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

—from In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

New Year's is an odd holiday. It is certainly a secular event, yet it comes just at the midpoint of the Christmas season, half way between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. That apparently chance positioning of the secular holiday in the midst of a sacred season (if chance there be) calls for some rumination about both festivals.

As the gospeler Luke tells it, Christmas is the feast of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the city of David, witnessed only by shepherds, who came from the nearby fields at the announcement of an angel. It is a humble and inward— or backward—looking story, connected with ancient Jewish prophecy and the folkways of Judea. The story Luke tells is the basis of the Christmas feast of the Nativity in the Church calendar.

As Matthew tells the story, there is a different emphasis, for he speaks of the Magi—wise men—who, at the token of a star, came from the east bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is an emblem of royalty, frankincense is an offering to God, and myrrh is used to embalm dead bodies, so the three gifts betoken kingship, pinity, and mortality: Christ the messianic king of Israel, Christ the Son of God, and Christ the human being subject to death like all humanity. Matthew's account is the basis for the feast of Twelfth Night or Epiphany.

The term "epiphany" means, etymologically, "a manifestation or showing forth," specifically the manifestation of Christ to the non-Jews or gentiles. Whereas the Nativity is about how Christ came to Israel, the Epiphany is about how the gentiles came to Christ. So Christmas is Jewish-centered, and Epiphany is gentile-centered. And smack-dab between the two comes New Year's Day. What do we make of positioning this secular holiday in the bosom of a sacred holy season?

New Year's day marks the beginning of a new year, a fresh start, a clean slate. The customs of our time call for celebrating the departure of the doddery senile Old Year and the arrival of the bright infant New Year, for making resolutions to lead a new life, for ushering in the future with parties, songs, and toasts, and for making noises and ringing bells. It is a very secular event.

The positioning of secular New Year's between sacred Christmas and Epiphany says something very important, namely, that our ordinary, materialist, secular life is not something apart from the spiritual; it is embedded in the sacred. There is really no distinction between the sacred and the secular. There is only a difference in the way we regard them. For all that is, is holy. That's what "holy" means: "wholly." To be whole, entire, all-inclusive is to be holy. To be fragmented, pided, and exclusive is to be un-whole and unholy.

Part of the problem in the world today is that some of us, especially in the West, think of the of the secular as something evil and suppose that the sacred requires a narrowly exclusive view of life and a theocratic rule of society. But that is simply to convert what should be sacred into a different form of secularism and thus to fragment humanity yet further. For the universe indeed to turn as one, we must not try to homogenize it to our particular view, but rejoice in multiplicity, recognizing that variety in the world can be dedicated to holiness.

The positioning of New Year's between the ethnically focused Christmas and the internationally focused Epiphany makes a double point. It says that the secular rests in the bosom of the sacred and can be understood only in a sacred context. But just as important, perhaps in these days even more important, it says that a new year, with its fresh beginning, calls for a resolution of the ancient antagonism between narrow ethnicity and wide universality. Clannishness must give way to world unity, sectarianism to ecumenicism, narrow focus to wide vision. A universe of concord requires no less.

New Year's Day has not always been January 1. The year once began in March, as the names of the months September, October, November, and December indicate. Those names mean etymologically the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months, as indeed they were when the year started with March. Only when January and February got put at the head of the year did the count go wrong.

The change of the first month from March to January has its own meaning for our time. March is the month devoted to Mars, the god of war. January is the month devoted to Janus, the god of endings and beginnings, of doorways (which are in the charge of janitors), and hence of life-passages or initiations and of new births. We too need to move our new beginnings from martial March to initiatory January. A universe of peace requires no less.

We welcome in the new year by ringing bells, especially church bells. The traditional method is called "change ringing," a practice in which a complete peal consists of ringing a set of bells in every possible order and not ringing the same order of bells more than once. If the set consists of 4 bells, there are 24 possible permutations for ringing them, and all those permutations can be rung in about half a minute. The more bells, the more complex the permutations and the longer the time required for ringing the changes. With 5 bells, there are 120 possible permutations; with 6 bells, 720 permutations; with 7 bells, 5,040 permutations—the practical limit on what can be rung. With 12 bells, the number of permutations would be 479,001,600 and the time required to ring them all would be about 40 years.

Changes have no tune, so are not melodic. But they follow an absolutely regular mathematical sequence. To the untrained ear, they sound disorderly, chaotic, or "wild." So it is probably to the ringing of changes on New Year's Eve that Tennyson was referring in section 106 of his elegy In Memoriam, whose first stanza is cited as an epigraph to these thoughts. Although the changes may seem "wild" or chaotic, they are in fact highly structured, intricately and complexly ordered. Within their seeming wildness is the most exquisite system.

The ringing of changes is a metaphor for life. What we see around us may seem chaotic and wild, but does so only because we have untrained ears, eyes, and minds. We expect to find our little tunes and melodies played back to us by nature, and fail to recognize the far greater order in nature's changes. To those who know, the wildness of life disappears into an exquisite system. So Tennyson concludes section 106 of In Memoriam thus:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
     Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
     The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
     For those that here we see no more;
     Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
     And ancient forms of party strife;
     Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
     The faithless coldness of the times;
     Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
     The civic slander and the spite;
     Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
     Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
     Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
     The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
     Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

A happy New Year on January 1, March 1, and always, to all of you.


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