I started going to Ash Wednesday services when I was working in New York City, in an office a few blocks from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. From the sidewalk, the cathedral is intimidating, all filigree and turrets. Inside, though, it’s intimate, quiet, and dark, save for a little light filtered through its rose window.
I went to the cathedral only on special occasions like Ash Wednesday, when the professional choir would sing polyphony and spirituals and Gregorian chants. It was astoundingly beautiful, that music—perfectly tuned and perfectly in time, slipping through the incense and the jewel-toned light. I cried in the pew, got my cross of ashes, and went back to work.
Was it wrong to look forward to a service about a subject—my sin, my death—that I was supposed to face with fear and trembling? Maybe. But how could I help it?
It was the same as when we sang requiems and dirges in my college choir, learning the Latin words for loss and telling the story of the Crucifixion in coloratura. In the Howells Requiem, in Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, death moved the choir, and death moved our audience. We’d accept our applause, file from the concert hall, and head off to the afterparty, relieved of a burden we didn’t know we were carrying.
This kind of catharsis isn’t an uncommon experience, even among Christians. There can be a strange beauty in the difficult and the macabre, in silence and penitence. “Lent is my favorite season,” a friend recently told me. “Well, not my favorite. That’s the wrong word. You know what I mean.” And I did. “I’m looking forward to Lent,” said another. That’s not wrong, per se. Many of us crave the intimacy with God that can arise in this intentional season of fasting and prayer and almsgiving.
But it’s also true that those of us who tend toward the contemplative (or the mopey) can find Lent suited not just to our spiritual longings but to our aesthetic preferences as well. The psalms of lament, the silences, the flickering candles, the purple, even the shadowy swoop of ashes against a forehead are all, well, pretty.
If we’re not careful, Lent in the life of the church can be like a John Keats ode, a tragic play, or a sad song: there to provide emotional release. When the darkness is done, when the art is finished, life gleams. A loud Manhattan avenue is suddenly brilliant after a dim hour in the cathedral.
Death no longer abstracted
Last year, I was the one providing the Ash Wednesday music. Our small church in Silicon Valley meets not in a cathedral but in a modest, rented sanctuary whose side doors are often thrown open to the sun. Unlike my fleeting relationship with St. John the Divine, I am part of the life of this congregation. The ashes in the bowl are made from the fronds of the palms we waved the year before.
From our place on the stage, my husband and I sang our way through the service. We offered a few hymns and a chant. Others gave readings and prayers. Then, it was time for the imposition. My husband strummed some plaintive chords. From my vantage point on the stage, I watched my fellow congregants, only 15 of them, form a line and approach the altar.
Now there’s a beautiful sight: a community in Christ engaged in tradition, shuffling up a carpeted aisle by candlelight. The guitar music set the scene. There was a lilt to the rector’s words, a poignancy to the cool night air coming through the windows. And I had the perfect view, facing the line of penitents, able to see their somber faces, the dark lines drawn with a finger.
But suddenly, nothing about what we were doing seemed beautiful in the least. This wasn’t death rendered in art. This wasn’t death covered in incense. This wasn’t death abstracted, a meditation I could hold at arm’s length.
As I heard our rector say each person’s name and then provide the reminder—“James, Lisa, Joel, you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—I looked at their eyes, downcast, their foreheads blackened with ash. All of these people are going to die.
Really, him? And her? And him too? Some were old and some were young, some were sick and some were well. The loss of these particular people was, suddenly, overwhelming: not theoretical but specific, and devastating. I knew which teas she kept in a jar and the taste of the persimmon cookies she made. I knew his laugh, his particular style of prayer. I knew the theological questions they wrestled with and what they did on the weekends and their spiritual gifts, the ways they shaped our collective life.
The loss of each one would be far from an “easeful Death” of which we were already “half in love,” as John Keats put it. It would be bad. Very bad. When my husband stopped his playing for a moment, leaning down so the rector could reach his forehead, I held my breath. Him too?
Ash Wednesday not as a private meditation but as a communal practice; Ash Wednesday in a place I lived rather than a place I visited: This was the remembrance I needed. Watching my brothers and sisters receive their ashes, I recalled, with horror, what death was really like when you experienced it as a mourner. It wasn’t the poignant plot twist in an opera or the tritone in an orchestral score, the carpe diem drama that made life worth living. Death was always an abomination.
In the aftermath of past losses, I’d laid on the ground and wept, suffered stomach pain that wouldn’t resolve, obsessed over regrets and missed opportunities, gritted my teeth, really suffered. When you are in the midst of death, there is nothing poetic about it. It can’t be aestheticized, can’t be made meaningful, even by our most beautiful rituals and reflections and works of art. There is, really, no catharsis to be had. When the woman with the persimmon cookies and the man with the laugh and the man with the questions and the man with the guitar are gone, they’ll be gone.
At least, for now. At least, here. The best sacred music gestures at what’s truly beautiful, beyond any earthly loveliness.
“There is a balm in Gilead,” the choir sang in the cathedral. “World, get out, let Jesus in!” thunders the bass in my favorite St. Matthew aria. Yes, let him! He’ll wipe every tear, bind up every wound, reunite and restore, offer a truer transfiguration than anything we could make to cope with our mortality.
In his new earth, I guess we might not have sad songs at all. That loss would be well worth it.
Kate Lucky is senior editor of audience engagement at Christianity Today.
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