Singing Ashes

I’ve said if there’s anything close to as overdone as the Mass of Creation its the criticism of it. I would say the same about the song that gets automatically programmed on the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, “Ashes.” Would a song like “Palms” be an automatic choice for the Sunday before Easter? I wouldn’t bet against it. “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” and “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” and “Immaculate Mary” are all in that genre.

There is better music out there for Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Christmas, Easter, and December 8th. And sometimes we use it, often in addition to the tried-and-true.

In turning over music planning to a committee of residents and student parishioners, “Ashes” came up this year for the first time since 2011. I had a rehearsal earlier this afternoon with it. For the first time in four years, the piece came back easily to my fingers. As I played, I listened more carefully to the lyrics. They didn’t strike me as bad as they are portrayed.

It’s a story song. It has a progression. We might sing about our sin in a song, but we don’t sing to make it right. We sing because it’s the truth. One line gets a lot of protest:

The rain we’ll use for growing, and create the world anew from an offering of ashes …

People don’t recreate the world. God does. And that is right. But it struck me that the lyric correctly interprets the human-God situation by verse four, as part of the concluding doxology:

Thanks be to the Spirit, who creates the world anew from an offering of ashes …

I think sinners certainly try pelagianism. It is human to try to correct our own mistakes–and maybe not a totally bad instinct. I know that many self-styled orthodox believers practice it, convinced that by the following of rules they have achieved a status above others less enlightened.

My sense is that like addicts, sinners cannot rise on their own power, however much they would like to do so by earnest tears, 70’s-style lyrics, or obedience to the powers-that-be. It is through powerlessness, and the admission of that sad fact that we rise. The song communicates that, though perhaps not as clearly if only two verses are sung and the words not much thought about.

I winced a bit when I saw the song on the music list, but now I think I will enjoy playing and singing it this Wednesday.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Singing Ashes

  1. Melody says:

    At least “Ashes” isn’t as dreary as “Forty Days And Forty Nights”. About time to dust off all 14 verses of “At The Cross Her Station Keeping” for Friday night stations of the Cross too. The best part of Lenten music is when it’s over. Which I guess isn’t entirely inappropriate.

  2. Liam says:

    Since it’s a rare event for me to attend an Ash Wednesday service (probably the last time was in the 1990s, and then in places where it was not sung), it’s not a song I’ve heard since college (early 1980s)….. Ashes is just one of many mediocre options, traditional or contemporary. Of the more contemporary options, I like Deiss’s Grant to Us O Lord, so long as it’s sung a cappella and with a flowing chant style rather than boxy metered style (ideally, no discernible lift between the two parts of the refrain, but an energized flow from the first into the second). I don’t think of it as excellent music, but less mediocre and more apt.

    Ash Wednesday is, however, a good day to recall that we should not be publicans who, perhaps in indirect ways, thank God we are not like those Pharisees any more than we should not be Pharisees who thank God we are not like those publicans.

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