A Listening Party for Ash Wednesday

Kicking off Lent with a few songs

By Anika Smith Published on February 18, 2015

ANIKA SMITH — There are many ways to “keep” Ash Wednesday. I have a good friend who reads T. S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, and another who goes on a listening retreat. One friend once told me once that it was her favorite time in all the church year because it acknowledged the reality of grief and death.

What I do is listen to music. I’ve put together a short list of favorite songs to get a sign-of-the-cross to, starting with the wake up call.

The Welcome Wagon, “I’m Not Fine” 

The Welcome Wagon kick off this Ash Wednesday listening party with the simplest summary of our need:

I’m not fine, and you’re not fine, and we’re not fine together, dear.
I told you I was sorry / It doesn’t feel like it’s enough
Lamb of God / You take away the sin

This song brings the crashing relief of recognizing your own guilt — and realizing that even that recognition and apology just doesn’t cut it.

 

 

Kevin Siegfried, “Media Vita”

Kevin Siegfried took the text of the ancient prayer the Media vita (“In the midst of life we are in death”) and used a pressure-cooker of dissonance to produce the closest thing an American has ever done to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It’s less of a chant and more of a lament, which reaches sublime extremes. And because it’s a choral piece recorded live, you also get things like a baritone coughing in the middle to remind you that everything, even a sublime choral work, is broken in this world.

Thomas Cranmer’s translation of the Media vita in the Book of Common Prayer runs thus:

In the midst of life we are in death;
of whom may we seek for succor,
but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty,
O holy and merciful Savior,
thou most worthy Judge eternal.
Suffer us not, at our last hour,
through any pains of death, to fall from thee.

It’s the song we sing at the end of life, knowing that death has intruded everywhere and that our only salvation from it is through Jesus.

 

 

Hymns From Nineveh, “A Brief Glimpse of Smoke”

Danish singer-songwriter Jonas Petersen writes lovely mystical folk-pop with his project Hymns From Nineveh. This song echoes the sense of the Media vita. Grass withers, cities perish, “signs of rust in my treasure” that lead to the chorus celebrating the mystery: “With the same two hands that buried my father / I carry my son.”

 

 

 

Citizens, “I Am Living in a Land of Death”

This song is considerably more upbeat, but not inappropriate as a meditation on the passing away of this world:

The kingdoms of man have all decayed
The ruins of progress turn to waste
The gods of greed lie in their graves
Darkness is everywhere
But there’s a path in the dark that has emerged
I can see a great light beyond this curse
A brilliant blaze that is Your word
A beacon of hope that burns

And I focus my captivated gaze
On the radiant light from Jesus’ face
The water of life is all I crave
Only Your word remains

 

 

Pacific Gold, “How Long (Love Constraining to Obedience)”

Pacific Gold took William Cowper’s lovely hymn “Love Constraining to Obedience” and got Fleet Foxy with it. The harmonies on the second verse when the struggle to obey comes in may help you through the next 40 days of wrestling— and failing — to not sin:

Then to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do
Now if I feel its power within
I feel I hate it too.

Then all my servile works were done,
A righteousness to raise
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.

How long, how long
beneath the Law I lay
How long, how long
I struggle to obey.

 

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