For Whom the Bells Toll — 26, 27, or 28?

I was glad yesterday morning when the bells rang 28 times at Marquand Chapel on Sterling Divinity Quad, where I work.  Granted, there was a pause after the first 26 times, but then the bells did ring two more times.  Why did it matter?

For Catholics at least, church bells have always been an eloquent language.  And bells used to be talkative; you heard them throughout the day and they did not stop at night either.  Bells marked time and times of prayer, rang out both good and bad news, and honored specific moments, seasons, and peoples (I am old enough to remember the bells of the Protestant churches in my home town joining the Catholic church bells as they rang out the sad news of the death of Pope John XXIII).

Yesterday, I was glad that the bells of Marquand Chapel rang 28 times, not 26 times only, and thereby gave voice to the tragic reality that 28 lives were violently lost in Newtown on December 14th — even if one of those lives belonged to the young gunman.


  1. Yes. Tolling laments lives lost, and indeed 28 lives were lost. Some find the inclusion of the gunman to be wrong; it might be wrong if the point of the tolling was to honor the dead; if it’s indeed a lament, one can certainly lament what the gunman’s life could have been and tragically wasn’t.

  2. I believe this is why “for all” is important at Eucharist. As church we need to be reminded that Jesus died for all of us, not just for “the good guys”.

  3. I regret that I wasn’t on the Div campus that day. I am not a student but I use the library frequently for research.

    No one should deny that the gunman’s actions were evil. Nor should anyone forget the families who lives have been shattered forever, or the grief of the entire community. I am convinced, though, that restorative Christian forgiveness indeed begins with the recognition that a person who has committed immense evil is also a victim. I, and many others might not want to believe this at this time. I am convinced that the reality that Christian forgiveness exists creates a foundation for emotional healing which can guide the suffering to solace.

  4. Tolling bells is symbolic speech, and so they may mean very different things to different people. While everyone can agree that 28 lives were lost, and maybe even that there were 28 victims, many people are looking for a much deeper meaning and hope out of this tragedy. Not simply some reminder of the fallen state of the human race or what we know about anger and psychologically coping with these situations.

    A good example of this need for something more is on CNN’s website in Anderson Cooper’s interview with the McDonnells about their 7 year old “amazing Grace.”

    Grace had such a great spirit. She had a kind and gentle soul. She was the light and love of our family. She taught us you have to live for the future, happiness and peace. I told Jack (her brother) that he could never live with hate. Grace didn’t have an ounce of hate in her. And so we have to live through Grace and realize that hate is not how our family is. She was all about peace.

    In a post interview message to Anderson, Grace’s mother adds that she took pictures to be her children’s eyes as they were growing up and now she is going to be Grace’s voice. “For I feel fearless.”

    I think the 20 children and the 6 teachers can be regarded as martyrs, as witnesses to love and peace. I don’t think people who see 27 or 28 victims should impose their victimhood view upon people who see 26 martyrs.

    In 2004 during the period before Christmas I wrote for some of my friends in VOTF a Service of Nine Lessons and Canticles for Childermas . Its theme is God’s preferential love for children, analogous to the spirituality of the poor. If I were doing it this year, I would probably begin with 20 bells. The twenty children can be viewed as “holy innocents.”

  5. I agree with Jordan that there were, indeed, 28 victims. 27 of them were innocent, and 1, tragically, wasn’t. Can any of us but reflect with horror on the state of mind and spiritual depravity and misfortune of someone who plots and commits such evil? Is this not, also, sad beyond understanding? There is nothing to hate, only a victim of evil to be pitied. It gives us pause to reflect on that from which we by the grace of God have been redeemed. I don’t know if this is true, but I was told once that there was a strict order of nuns in Germany whose particular work it was to pray for the soul of Hitler. There are, to be sure, those for whom we cannot imagine redemption; but then, how often do we fail to comprehend the boundless love and grace of God, who knows all? I am grateful that I am no one’s judge.

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