The Wooden Clapper of Holy Week: The Crotalus

Photo credit: Neal Abbott Film & Photography 

To signify celebration, bells ring out joyous sounds with crashing and pealing, reverberating harmonious beauty though the Christian world. This is both in celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and a call to the celebration of prayer. However, in the Christian tradition bells are silent on Good Friday, in memory of the immense sadness marking the day in which we commemorate the crucifixion, death, and burial of Christ.   

As a substitute for bells, the tradition of the wooden clapper (or crotalus) developed over the centuries. There are a few different versions. This is a time-honored custom of the Latin Church to express sadness in substitute of the typical joyous harmony expressed by the sound of bells. The crotalus is brought out every year on Holy Thursday after the Gloria. The first part of the Mass is joyful, as usual. When the Gloria is intoned, the organ sounds and the bells are rung - and suddenly they cease, remaining silent until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.

The profound silence of the bells gives thought for serious reflection. The rhythmic strikes of the crotalus make for a somber mood as the faithful are reminded that something is missing. Christ the Lord has been crucified and is in the tomb until the Easter Vigil celebration when He rises from the dead and the sound of bells return. 

Similarly, the "strepitus" (Latin for "great noise") at the conclusion of Good Friday Tenebrae services is intended to jolt the soul. 

The Latin word for the Lenten clapper is "crotalus," which is said to have originated from the Greek word "krotalon" which means "rattle." At a time when secular forces are working in overdrive to emancipate culture from ecclesiastical influence, it is little traditions like this that help our cause. In previous generations Christian civilization incorporated every aspect of social and liturgical life in a sacred order of sacramental symbols and liturgical observances to stir emotions and to teach the faith. 

The Church is the custodian of the sacred liturgy and it is the bearer of a living tradition that unites the present and the past, the living and the dead, in one great spiritual community which transcends the world. The recovery of these little traditions help bring a spiritual dimension to the darkened modern world. Although the custom of the crotalus died out in the dark days of sixties revolution, it is a breath of fresh air to see it returning, safeguarding the absolute values of the liturgy of Holy Week, both in the theological and historical spheres. To all our fine young priests helping to revive this noble tradition, thank you!

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