Bells and Smells – A Catholic Thing

Bells and Smells Tell a Story

Catholicism is sometimes referred to as the religion with ‘bells and smells’.  And in many ways we are.  Catholics take their whole body to prayer, we use more than words.  We stand, we sit, we kneel, hear bells, smell incense, feel holy water, cross ourselves, and genuflect. But not just for the sake of it but because everything we do has meaning and says something about our faith.

Posture tells it

As can be seen during the Mass how we are in prayer tells its own story. Kneeling strictly speaking is the bearing of repentance and private worship, this is why many people kneel after communion, it is why we kneel when we say “Lord, I am not worthy…” Sitting is a more passive stance of reflection and being open, we sit during the presentation of the gifts reflecting on the movement between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Standing is the posture of respect, witness and readiness for mission that is why we stand during the dismissal rite because we are being sent to, “go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”.

 Sacred Signs

Sacramentals are sacred signs that help prepare people to receive the sacraments and that bless different circumstance of life.

Bells used in liturgy are sacramentals, they are used to help us prepare to receive the Eucharist. Traditionally and occasionally today, bells are rung to call people to Church, to remind people that are on their way to prepare for the celebration of Mass. Bells are also used to highlight significant sacred times.  Beginning in the sixth century the practice of ringing what became known as the “Santus bell” became commonplace during the celebration of Mass.  As well as being rung at the Sanctus it rang before the consecration, at the institution at the priest’s communion and sometimes again before the congregation received communion.

Bells are not used at Mass as frequently as they once were.  That’s because the liturgy has changed and we don’t need the same help to prepare to receive Eucharist.  Pre Vatican II with the priest’s back to the people, no microphones and the Mass in Latin the ringing of bless helped people to focus on important moments in the prayer of the Mass.  There are now numerous visual and auditory prompts including the use of our own language so the necessity for the bells is not as great as it was.

 Incense has a long history of use in the liturgy.  Jews considered the rich spice a pure offering, pleasing to God. Its sweet smell and rising smoke as it is burnt naturally invokes the idea of prayer rising to God.  As the Psalmist petitioned – “Let my prayer come like incense before you” (Psalm 141).  Incense is used at Mass to show honour and respect.  During certain Masses incense is used to recognise the reverence the gathered have. The censing of the Book of the Gospels reminds us of the reverence we hold for the Word of God and Christ the Word incarnate. Censing the altar shows respect for Christ whom the altar represents and his sacrifice made present upon the altar.

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