Ash Wednesday

Every year I find myself asking, “What is the date for Ash Wednesday?”

Upon hearing the answer (February 17, by the way), my response (every year) is, “Wow- that’s early!”

I don’t know why I’m surprised every year. While the date of Ash Wednesday does float, it should never really be that surprising. I guess coming off the high of Christmas (and Advent, and Epiphany, and the Feast of the Theotokos, and the Baptism of the Lord, and, and…) it’s hard to start thinking about planning music for Ash Wednesday, let alone planning music for Lent in general.

But this year, I sat down a few Sundays ago and read through all of the readings for Lent (through the Triduum readings and everything) in one long sitting. It was glorious.

But then, like the disciples coming down from the mount of the Transfiguration, the work begins again in earnest. The reality of the firm, dirty ground hits, and we have to start trying to figure out how we, as musicians, ministers, teachers, and leaders, bring the good news to other people. It’s part of our job to sit down and spend hours filling ourselves with Scripture and Song, feasting on the abundance of God’s mysteries. For almost everyone else, it’s (at best) a hobby, and (at worst) a tedious obligation. We need to find ways to bring people “up to speed” on the mysteries, help them find a way to experience what we experience, and we need to do it efficiently and effectively, before they wander off, too bored or too busy.

Music is the best way I know how. An exotic beat on a hand drum transports us to a Middle Eastern desert. A minor seventh played with the right touch on a grand piano, and we’re suddenly in communion with the African-American congregations who know the true meaning of “Let my people go.” Yes- music gives us the ability to move post-haste into the mysteries of our faith. The right hymn can hurtle us headlong into the struggles of ancient people or the glorious triumphs of our future selves.

As Lent begins this year, and you find yourself planning your Ash Wednesday service, push yourself to expand your musical choices. Find the right songs (some familiar, some new) and find the right styles. Consider instrumentation- think beyond your usual piano, organ, or guitar accompaniment. Consider voicing- do the sopranos need to always sing the melody? Consider speed- there’s more than fast and slow. Consider
style- there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of distinct ethno-music cultures, each one with a wealth of spiritual opportunities for us. Consider Christian musical traditions outside of American/Catholic/Folk- when was the last time you sang acapella shape-notes, or Byzantine chant, or British sacred choral music, or…?
Consider the amateur composers within your own community, and even the dormant songwriter that dwells in yourself.

Special seasons call for special music, and there are no seasons more special than the massive liturgical gauntlet of Lent and Easter. Take full advantage. I’ll be here with ideas, encouragement, and maybe a few songs you haven’t heard of.

Here are my picks for Ash Wednesday…