Lent Playlist

Wednesday, February 17, is the start of Lent, a forty-day season of penitence and renewal. It’s not so much about making resolutions as it is about drawing near to God and encountering his grace afresh—at the foot of the cross.

That closeness entails confronting, confessing, and repenting of sin—sins of commission and omission. (The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that we sin “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”) It’s an uncomfortable process, but one that grows us, makes us healthy. It makes our relationships and communities healthier too. Jesus’s grace is not just warm fuzzies in the hearts of private individuals but, rather, works itself out in the world.

As a companion for the Lenten journey, I’ve curated a Spotify playlist of songs for the season, a mix of prayers and praises to the Triune God whose strength avails to meet us in our weakness and our need. Some are invitational, others are penitential, and others are celebratory. Along with images of dust, blood, wilderness, and death, there are themes of victory and rising, healing and wholeness, rivers that cleanse, rivers that quench thirst, agricultural metaphors of planting and growth, calls to lay down one’s burden and to rest in the Savior’s love. There are songs of pursuing and of being pursued (us calling out to God, God calling out to us), for as we deepen our desire for God, we come to realize how deep God’s desire is for us.

The playlist opens with “That We Might See” by Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin, a setting (with slight modifications) of this Christina Rossetti poem:

Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly:

Till taught by such, we see
Beyond all creatures Thee;
And hearken for Thy tender word,
And hear it, “Fear not: it is I.”

I chose this as the introductory song because, first, it expresses how out of “death” or dormancy can come great life and beauty—as with the buried seed that, once germinated, brings forth lushness. This is one of the prime metaphors of Lent, and this song is a supplication that we would have eyes to see it and, what’s more, participate in it (see Rom. 6). Second, I like how it reminds us of the tenderness and approachability of Jesus. Some people enter Lent with a sense of dread, fearing that their sins are too great, or that they will never measure up to some set standard of piety. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid. His love and mercy know no bounds. He wants to set us free from our illusions of self-sufficiency and for us to rely on his Spirit to work good things in and through us.

Let me share just a handful of other song highlights.

“Simple Gifts” is a one-verse Shaker hymn from 1848, performed here by the amazing female trio Mountain Man (Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Amelia Randall Meath, and Molly Erin Sarle). The Shakers, a Christian sect, were known for their use of dance during worship, and “bowing,” “bending,” and “turning” are dance instructions as much as they are instructions for life. Simplicity is another hallmark of the Shakers, a virtue and a discipline that Lent summons us to.

Another Lenten virtue is silence. In 2018 Paul Zach released the EP God Is the Friend of Silence, whose title track is inspired by a Mother Teresa quote: “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.”

There are many originals from the past decade on the playlist, but there are also a lot of classic hymns: “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”), “Softly and Tenderly” (intriguingly reharmonized by the Wilderness of Manitoba), “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Grace That Is Greater,” “Nothing but the Blood,” “Near the Cross,” “Just as I Am,” “Jesus Paid It All,” “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” “Where He Leads Me.” And a beautiful adaptation of “I Surrender All” by Chanda Rule, who revised the first verse to this:

O Beloved, I surrender
All my heart I freely give
Ever open, ever trusting
Breathing with my Source, I live

Also included are several settings of the ancient liturgical prayer Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”)—by Hildegard of Bingen, Josquin des Prez, Isaac Wardell, and the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal (sung in Wolof). Plus the fourteenth-century prayer known as the Anima Christi, with music composed by jazz master Mary Lou Williams using a 6/8 rhythm pattern and a bass clarinet.

Soul of Christ, be my sanctification
Body of Christ, be my salvation
Blood of Christ, fill my veins
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains

Passion of Christ, my comfort be
O good Jesus, listen to me
Lord, have mercy on me

. . .

The entire Lent album by Liturgical Folk is inspired by specific Lenten readings from the Book of Common Prayer. My favorite song is “Willing Minds,” based loosely on the collect (succinct prayer) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The melismatic phrases (in which one syllable is stretched out across multiple successive notes) underscore the flightiness of the human will, our inconstancy, our lack of rootedness.

“Create in Me” by Terry Talbot, covered by The Acappella Company in the video below, is a prayer that’s pieced together from various verses of scripture, starting with Psalm 51:10:

Other favorites, which I’ve featured on the blog before, are Leon Bridges’s “River” [previously] and “Hallelujah” by MaMuse [previously]. “I’m gonna let myself be lifted,” the latter asserts.

As much as Lent is about dying to sin, it’s also about rising with Christ, so resurrection is present throughout—in biblical narrative songs about Jonah, Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, for example (foretastes of Easter), but also in songs of personal testimony and aspiration. The theme is especially punctuated in the final few selections. “Where All New Life Begins” by John Lucas seeks to define faith, landing on “Faith is laying your body down / And believing new life will come up from the ground.” Carrie Newcomer’s “Lean in Toward the Light” opens with a similar image of buried seeds, which stretch out underneath the cold winter earth as they prepare to sprout (that is, resurrect), their growth enabled by the light; “keep practicing resurrection!” exclaims the second stanza.

The last two songs are centered on Romans 8. “The Spirit of Life” by Psallos is a contemporary setting of verses 1–17 and part of a larger project. For the final, “sending forth” song I’ve chosen “Conquerors” by Hiram Ring, which is quieter, less anthemic, than the previous one, but its chorus rings of Romans 8:37 and makes for a powerful closing:

We are more than conquerors
Heading out into this world
Freed from chains and strengthened now
’Cause his love is all around

Lent playlist cover (Van Gogh)

This is just a sampling of the 150 songs on Art & Theology’s Lent playlist, which I will probably build on indefinitely. Later in the season I plan to publish a different list specifically for Holy Week.

To add the playlist to your account, open the link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Playlist cover art: Vincent van Gogh, Rain (detail), Saint-Rémy, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Roundup: Saar installation, Christian themes in Australian and New Zealand art, “heart of God” chant, jazz Communion song

VISUAL MEDITATION: On The Alpha & The Omega by Betye Saar: A few weeks ago my commentary on a Betye Saar installation was published on ArtWay.eu. The idiomatic Hebrew in the title is a reference not to Christ but to the beginning and the end of life, a theme Saar explored by arranging around a blue-painted room such found objects as an antique cradle, dried hydrangeas, a boat shell, a mammy figurine, a washboard, empty apothecary bottles, books, clocks, a moon-phase diagram, etc.

Saar, Betye_Alpha and Omega installation
Betye Saar, The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The End, 2013. Installation at Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

With an educational background in design, Saar began her career as a printmaker and working in theater on costumes and sets. She then ventured into collage, which led to assemblage (for which she is most celebrated), sculpture, and installations. With installations, she likes how “the whole body has the experience”—how you are quite literally inside the work. Saar is one of today’s leading American contemporary artists, with two exhibitions currently running in the United States: one at MoMA, and the other at LACMA. I first encountered her in a college art history course, through her most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Race, memory, and spirituality are recurring themes in her oeuvre.

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ESSAY: “‘A pretty decent sort of bloke’: Towards the quest for an Australian Jesus” by Jason A. Goroncy: “What happens to religious images and symbols when they get employed outside of their traditional contexts and charged with unapproved and heterodox interpretations?” asks Goroncy. “From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely anti-Jesus’. But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.” [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Dowling, Julie_Black Madonna, Omega
Julie Dowling (Badimaya/Yamatji/Widi, 1969–), Black Madonna: Omega, 2004. Synthetic polymer paint, red ocher, glitter, and metallic paint on canvas, 120 × 100 cm. Art Gallery of Western Australia. “I painted this in honour of First Nation mothers who have their children stolen from them by white governments in order to assimilate their children.”

Mombassa, Reg_Jesus Is Stripped Bare
Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) (Australian, 1951–), Australian Jesus Is Stripped Bare, station 10 from the Stations of the Cross cycle. Chapel at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Barton, ACT, Australia. Photo: Katherine Spackman.

Goroncy quotes Wilson Yates, who says that Jesus has become “a part of the culture and life far beyond the final control of the church, . . . imaged in diverse ways by non-Christian as well as Christian artists, often contrary to the church’s dominant interpretation. . . . This should not be viewed as threatening,” however, but rather as “a means by which, paradoxically, the traditional symbols are kept vital – are kept alive in the midst of human life.”

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AUDIO INTERVIEW: Justin Paton on New Zealand artist Colin McCahon: In celebration of the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, art critic and curator Justin Paton has published McCahon Country, which examines nearly two hundred of the artist’s paintings and drawings. In this Saturday Morning (RNZ) interview, Paton says that McCahon is one of the great modern religious artists; an unabashed Christian, he grappled with how to make religious art in a post-religious age, often interweaving biblical themes and texts with New Zealand landscapes. His paintings, Paton says, are “an unequivocal statement of faith,” painted at times with “sophisticated unsophistication.” In 1948 one critic described them dismissively as “like graffiti in some celestial lavatory”—a comparison Paton affirms but sees as commendatory.

McCahon, Colin_The days and the nights in the wilderness
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), The days and the nights in the wilderness showing the constant flow of light passing into a dark landscape, 1971

McCahon, Colin_The Resurrection of Lazarus
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), Practical religion: The resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, 1969–70. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 207.5 × 807 cm. Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand), Wellington.

I was familiar with McCahon’s early works—Annunciations, Crucifixions—but not so much the later ones featured here. For example, The days and the nights, about which Paton says,

You could take a first look at this thing and you could think it’s not so exciting, in a way. It’s . . . smeary blacks and then there’s this . . . kind of clay color—muddy, you might say. . . . The form is this kind of ocher cross with black surrounding it. But give it some time, and you realize that the space above describes a horizon line. You can see the riffle of clouds along that horizon. If you know Muriwai on the West Coast, you can recognize it as a West Coast landscape, which is of course the spirit landscape up which souls travel in Maori mythology. And then you realize that this cross is also a kind of estuary, that it is descending through to areas or gates. So it is at once the Christian cross, it’s the Buddhist idea of light as grace which descends towards us . . .

About Lazarus:

McCahon said the Lazarus story was one of the great stories about seeing: all those people who were witnesses to this event saw as never before. What’s wonderful in the work is, as you read your way from left to right—and it really is this kind of epic telling of the story—when you’re about two-thirds of the way across, he almost makes you into Lazarus. He puts you into the position of this person who is emerging from the tomb, because there’s this sliver of light that opens up and bursts then fills the right-hand third of the painting. It’s like coming out of a dark space and suddenly being blinded by sunlight.

It’s a great example of what a great reader he was. He got into these texts with the avidity of a fan. You really felt he was there with these people in this ancient story and then tries to put us inside it as we stand and walk in front of this giant canvas. It has a terrific oscillation between something worldly and vernacular and then something exalted and sacred at the other end.

For more on McCahon, see “Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon” by Rex Butler (2012), The Spirit of Colin McCahon by Zoe Alderton (2015), and Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (2003).

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CHANT: “I Am Here in the Heart of God” by Erin McGaughan, adapt. & arr. Chandra Rule: At the Singing Beloved Community workshop held in September in Cincinnati, song leader Chanda Rule led participants in a chant that she adapted from Erin McGaughan. To McGaughan’s original, Rule added three new verses with a modulation between each, and she presented the whole of it in a call-and-response format. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I am here in the heart of God
God is here in the heart of me
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

I am here in the breath of God
God is here in the breath of me
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
I am here in the breath of God

I am here in the soul of God
God is here in the soul of me
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
I am here in the soul of God

I am here in the mind of God
God is here in the mind of me
Like the earth in my body and my body in the earth
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

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SONG: “I Hunger and I Thirst,” words by John S. B. Monsell (1866), with new music by Wally Brath: I was listening to the video recording of the Grace College Worship Arts jazz vespers service that took place November 8 at Warsaw First United Methodist Church in Indiana, when I heard this striking hymn. Written by a nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman, it was set to music by Wally Brath, an assistant professor of worship arts at Grace College, who’s playing the piano in the video. The performance features Grammy Award–winning bassist John Patitucci, and vocalist Ethan Leininger. Click here to listen to the whole service and to see the full list of musicians. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I hunger and I thirst:
Jesu, my manna be;
ye living waters, burst
out of the rock for me.

Thou bruised and broken Bread,
my life-long wants supply;
as living souls are fed,
O feed me, or I die.

Thou true life-giving Vine,
let me thy sweetness prove;
renew my life with thine,
refresh my soul with love.

Rough paths my feet have trod
since first their course began:
feed me, thou Bread of God;
help me, thou Son of Man.

For still the desert lies
my thirsting soul before:
O living waters, rise
within me evermore.