And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “...when you shall gather together for an assembly, you shall sound, … and the priests,
the sons of Aaron, shall sound with the trumpets; and it shall be to you a perpetual statute throughout your generations.” Numbers 10:10
From days of old, long before we had other ways to send signals to the community, big sounds created from things were used - such as loud musical instruments, bells, gongs, cymbals, etc. The sounds acted as signals to direct the community as to what was to be done, who to do it and when. These sounds were signals to guide people who were moving together.
We see some of that in the passage from Numbers 10:1-10 amongst the Israelite community. Trumpet sounds were used to call to assembly, to break camp in an orderly fashion, to rally troops during war and of course, to add to joyous feasts of worship and celebration. Sounds added an auditory sense to remembrance, that they may remember that He is the Lord their God.
These traditions were carried over to Christian communities and churches as well. Since the late 19th century, our Cathedral bells rung to signal that a worship or prayer service was about to start. It was also a time teller, announcing the coming of the night and alerting town folks of evening curfew time, and they should be careful if they were still on the streets. It was as if the sound of bells was breathing a prayer from our compline: “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…"
Our city and audio landscape have changed significantly over the years. Today, there is little ‘communal hearings’ beyond the occasional testing of the city’s security siren. We have sounds - lots of it - but as a cacophony from the malls and streets. And some are only heard - often very loudly - within one’s ear canal. Using earphones of noise-cancelling grade, the rest of the city is shut out.
Hearing together: how we miss that! In a modern and highly individualised society, where increasing atomisation is replacing social connection, privacy rights above community, we may be losing some communal treasures of old.
Coming back to our bells, their significance, enhanced by the latest refurbishment and restoration, will continue to carry many layers of significance. As a faithful and constant sound, it will continue to remind us that with changing times, "Jesus is still the same, yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). It will remind us to align our lives with His Kingdom purposes. It will remind us that many who had their sounds in the past had been resilient in their faith, even in moments of great suffering.
As a city sound, while it no longer has the same function in our changed landscape, it should still ring to remind the city of her need for transcendence in a very material and temporal world.