For whom the bells toll

Governor Dannel P. Malloy has requested that all Connecticut churches toll their bells on the morning of Friday, December 21, 2012, in remembrance of those who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown last week.

On that day in our village church, scripture lessons appointed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (normally celebrated on December 28) will be read. At the close of the service, at 9:30 AM, the church bell will toll 26 times as the names of the deceased are read out.

Traditionally, church bells are rung to mark the passing of the departed. We think of John Donne’s meditation No Man is an Island, which carries the final lines: “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

A. E. Housman‘s poem Bredon Hill comes to mind as well. Here the poet mourns the death of his beloved at Christmastide.

But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon
And still the steeples hum.
`Come all to church, good people,’ —
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.

Incidentally, the Feast of the Holy Innocents or Childermas — the Fourth Day of Christmas — commemorates the slaughter of those boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger, who were put to the sword under Herod’s orders. As Bethlehem was a small town, the number of those children was probably no more than 25.

In Newtown there were 20.

Coventry Carol

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

O sisters too, How may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling,
For whom we do sing,
By by, lully lullay?

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

Herod, the King, In his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might,
In his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

That woe is me, Poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting
Nor say nor sing
By by, lully lullay!

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