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
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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