In a recent email to a friend, I mentioned that I vastly prefer the music of Lent to the music of Eastertide. Obviously, I’m just going to have to shore up all of that lamentation and penitence for next year. To tide me over, however, I will here present a sampling of some of my favorite Lenten music. If you play the videos embedded below, you’ll notice a certain trend. My favorite Lenten music is full of drama and honesty. Lent is not a time for smugness, and I have to admit that I revel in all that honest soul-searching. However odd it is, Lent is the one time of year that I feel almost normal.
As an example, here’s the text of verse three of “Creator of the Earth and Skies”: “We have not loved you: far and wide, the wreckage of our hatred spreads, and evils wrought by human pride recoil on unrepentant heads.” I couldn’t find a performance of the hymn to post, but it’s Hymn 148 from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, words by David W. Hughes (1911-1967), Uffingham tune. Anyway, what I like about this hymn, along with many of my favorites from the Lent section of the hymnal, is that it strips away the veneer that we use to cover our humanity, that lovely fig leaf of self-delusion that we use to convince ourselves that we are naturally good. I’m not entirely certain why I get so annoyed by this veneer, but I do. When I encounter it in life or in hymns, my fingers itch to point it out as folly, to tear it away.
Not sure what I mean? Here’s verse 3 from “Onward Christian Soldiers”: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope in doctrine, one in charity.” (Words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), music by Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900), St. Gertrude) I infinitely prefer the version of humanity and Christianity offered by Hughes, because that’s what I see on a daily basis. I can’t recall ever looking at the whole picture of humanity and supposing that we were united in charity.
I’ve divided these music selections into three groups: (1) hymns that focus on individual penitence, (2) hymns that focus on how much it sucks to be Jesus, and (3) choral anthems that carry the themes of Lent.
“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” – BWV38.
It’s hard for me to choose a favorite from among the two hymns featured in this section. This hymn, whose German title is shown above (from the original words by Martin Luther in 1524) is styled as “From deepest woe I cry to thee” in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 from an English translation by Catherine Winkworth (1863) that was slightly altered for the hymnal. The words beautifully encapsulate the themes of Lent: penitence and the acknowledgement both of God’s grace and mercy and of our own unworthiness. My favorite verse is the second:
Thou grantest pardon through thy love;
thy grace alone availeth.
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove;
yea, e’en the best life faileth.
For none may boast themselves of aught,
but must confess thy grace hath wrought
whate’er in them is worthy.
Perhaps I should explain a bit of my theological background in order to shed some light on this reflection. I grew up in a funky church that emphasized works and glossed over that whole faith/grace/all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God bit. As an early teen, I switched to a somewhat evangelical church that comprehended a better balance between works and faith, but, both because of my earlier background and because of the twisty ways teenage minds shape and bend theological messages, I began to view God as implacable–no matter how much I repented, I still felt condemned for my sins, unable to accept the grace of God. Now, I could spend an awful lot of time attempting to work out all of the intricacies of that one sentence, and maybe I will at a later time. For now, suffice it to say that I was still attempting to earn my salvation through good works, and I was never able to be quite good enough to attain it. After I switched to the Episcopal Church, I had the good fortune to interact with a priest who felt strongly about grace, and I began to understand just why it’s so difficult to accept it.
We human beings hate feeling grateful or obliged to someone else. It is an extremely difficult emotion for us to manage. From early childhood, we want to be independent, to do things all by ourselves, to feel a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished. My elder daughter is almost three, and she has reached the independent stage with a vengeance. She wants to climb the stairs all by herself and put her shoes on all by herself, and she becomes incredibly frustrated when she is not able to do so. As we grow into adulthood, we like to think that we cast off all of the quirks of childhood, but we do not. We yearn to be acknowledged for the things we have done, to have others recognize that we did them “all by myself,” and it is almost shameful for us to have to admit those occasions when we have received timely assistance from others. It is as though we are convinced that there is no value in accomplishing some task if one does not do it entirely by oneself. But how foolish is that? When was the last time you accomplished anything entirely by yourself? I would be nothing without the assistance of my husband, my children, my parents, my friends, my coworkers, etc. Even the very few things that I do well I cannot really claim: I write well, but isn’t that largely because of the efforts of one Frank Jansson (my high school English teacher)?
If it is difficult for us to acknowledge an obligation or gratefulness to another person for assistance in our day to day lives, how much more difficult is it for us to acknowledge that our salvation (however we comprehend it) is entirely outside our control. I still struggle with it. At the evangelical church I attended, we teens in the youth group were taught that each sin we committed was another nail piercing Jesus’ flesh–that if we could stop sinning, he could stop suffering. As an adult, I view that teaching as patently ridiculous. First, we really can’t stop sinning because it’s in our nature to be schmucks sometimes. Second, Christ died once–it isn’t a continual sacrifice, it’s a continual redemption. When we repent, God doesn’t say, “Um, let me think about it… I’ll get back to you later when I decide whether or not you deserve to be forgiven for that one.” Instead, our forgiveness and atonement is already there, just waiting for us to accept the gift, because we never deserve to be forgiven, but we are forgiven regardless.
During Lent, we are encouraged to take an honest look at our lives and to reflect with penitence on the need for redemption and the beautiful gift of mercy God gives us. This season of reflection prepares us for the yearly celebration of this gift at Easter. I have a tendency to live in Lenten ways all the year through, because I find such comfort in the idea that God loved me enough to make such a sacrifice that no matter how much of a schmuck I will ever be, that unconditional love will never fail. I no longer believe that God is implacable, unwilling or unable to forgive my great transgressions. Instead, I happily believe that no matter how much nonsense I dish out, God is more than capable of forgiving it.
“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun” – John Donne (1631-1673), Dresden, arr. John Ness Beck (1930-1987).
I expended all of my theological mumbo-jumbo in discussing the first hymn of this section, so I’ll just highlight my favorite verse from this hymn, from a poem by John Donne. Verse 3:
I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore.
and having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.
“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” – Johann Heermann (1585-1647), tr. Robert Bridges (1844-1930), Herzliebster Jesu, arr. J. S. Bach (1685-1750).
I’m not quite as fond of the ‘boy, it sucks to be Jesus’ hymns as the hymns from the first section. Honestly, I think a meditation on the sufferings of Christ can be overdone. However, I truly love the two hymns I’m posting here. My favorite verse from “Ah, holy Jesus” is verse 5:
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.
“O sacred head, sore wounded” – Robert Bridges (1899), Passion Chorale
For true Lenten drama, you can’t really outdo “O sacred head, sore wounded.” My favorite verse is verse 4, which is starred in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (meaning it can be omitted). Thankfully, we sing all 5 verses at my church.
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever! and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.
I sing in the choir at my church, and I just adore the music we do during Lent. I find that I cannot get sick of renaissance motets. Anyway, here are two of my favorite Lenten anthems.
“Call to Remembrance” – Richard Farrant (c. 1530-1580)
“God So Loved the World” – John Stainer (1840-1901)
If you made it through all of this giant post (and watched all those videos), cheers, and thank you for your patience!