When I first started attending Divine Liturgy, I noted the bells rung as the priest used his censer before and during the Liturgy and I wondered why the bells were used. In a recent blog post, Fr. Ernesto gives a good explanation of this:
Every Sunday when an Orthodox believer goes to the Divine Liturgy, he/she hears plenty of bells. In many Orthodox parishes, one can hear the ringing of multiple bells as the worship begins. Though this was not done in the Antiochian parishes in which I have been involved, it is done in the OCA parish to which I am currently assigned. I was surprised the first time that I heard the bells announcing the beginning of worship, but they are played so well and with such abandon that I have come to quite enjoy them. The ringing of bells before worship is part of the common Christian tradition, observed by Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. I regret that in many churches of every type that tradition has faded.
But, among the Orthodox, this sounding of the bells goes farther than in any of the other traditions. Why? Because the Orthodox attach multiple bells to their censer. And, since the Orthodox cense various times during the Liturgy, this means that the sounding of the bells is part of the aural tradition of Orthodoxy. But, from where does this idea of the bells come? I have mentioned before that many of our Orthodox traditions have an Old Testament root. And, yes, this idea of the bells that ring as the clergy move around the altar area does have an Old Testament root as well, but not from a censer. Ask yourself, where in the Old Testament do you find the idea of the ringing of bells every time that the priest moved?
Make the robe of the ephod entirely of blue cloth, with an opening for the head in its center. There shall be a woven edge like a collar around this opening, so that it will not tear. Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the LORD and when he comes out, so that he will not die. (Exodus 28:31-35)
A later Scripture expands this requirement to all the priests. The robe of an Israelite priest had bells around its bottom hem. If the symbolism of incense is the prayers of the saints, the symbolism of the bells is that those who are in the Holy of Holies are legitimately there by permission of the God of Heaven and Earth. No one can come into the Holy Place with sin in their life. But, the bells symbolize the fact that the person present in the Holy of Holies is permitted to be there in spite of their many sins. In the Old Testament this looked forward to the redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But, in the New Testament, this is a joyful ringing of the bells that declares the redemption received from Jesus Christ Our Lord. And, this ringing is associated with the censer because it declares that our prayers are now heard by God. The barriers are broken. Jesus is Lord!
For us Orthodox there is, of course, a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. But, there are many Old Testament traditions that have crossed into the Church. These Traditions enrich the Church and preserve her connection to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.