It has come to my attention that many parishioners, and even many music directors, are not especially happy to find themselves singing "Ashes" every Ash Wednesday -- but they feel that there is no alternative. It's sort of like the way we eat turkey on Thanksgiving at our house. Nobody really enjoys it, but it's hard to imagine doing anything else on that day.
But no. There are lots and lots of wonderful Lenten hymns to be found, even if your church isn't trained in polyphony. Best of all, these hymns not only avoid heresy, they are actually rich lessons in doctrine and even in Bible history, if you pay attention to the words. Here's an example, where the first verse gives you a quick summary of the what and why of Lent:
The Glory of These Forty Days
The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.
Then the next three verses remind us that we are in very good company when we practice self-denial as a means of making ourselves more fitting messengers of the word of God:
Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who made the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.
So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Deliver'd from the lions' might;
And John, the Bridegroom's friend, became
The herald of Messiah's name.
Then grand us, Lord, like them to be
Ful oft in fast and prayer with thee;
Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
And give us joy to see thy face.
Did it ever to you to pattern your Lenten behavior after that of Moses, Elijah, Daniel, and John? It didn't occur to me! What do you know, Lent is not all about us. And of course *sigh* this particular hymn was harmonized by Bach, so if your organist is up to it, you will emerge from the final verse feeling like you've enjoyed a four course meal -- uh, with your ears.
Here's another Lenten hymn I'd love to sing in the next few weeks. It may sound complex and too advanced for the typical congregation, but the tune is actually pretty simple, and would sound just fine in unison. It's a heartrending meditation on the reason for Jesus' Passion:
Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
And here are the final two verses, which rescue us from drowning in guilt:
For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy moral sorrow, and thy life's oblation;
Thy death of anguish, and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and they love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
Whew. There's a good reminder that Lent isn't a forty-day plan to get control of our carbs. It's about Christ's innocence, Christ's suffering, our utter inability to comprehend His love and His sacrifice, and our trust in His mercy.
Speaking of mercy, Lent is a perfectly fine time to sing one of my favorites, which has several different musical settings (the most common in these parts being by Julius Rontgen). The words have an almost primitive simplicity which is delightful and instructive:
There's a Wideness in God's Mercy
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
Because what's the point of even the most stringent sacrifice if God isn't kind?
What are some of your favorite Lenten hymns? Have you learned anything from them?