March 24, 2011

On Singing and Creating

Back on Ash Wednesday I remarked in a tweet how I had gone through the whole of the liturgical day without singing Tom Conry's "Ashes." I thought it notable because the song, at least in my catholic experience, is something of an anthem for the day.

Therefore I was quite amused with Fr. Guardian chose it for the hymn for Morning Prayer today; a Lent would not pass without it after all. I don't know why he pulled it out now in the second week of Lent; perhaps because it's snowing this morning here in Boston, giving the line "Though spring has turned to winter" a special poignancy.

I first remember singing "Ashes" in 1995 when I was working at St. Stephen of Hungary on 82nd St. in Manhattan (I can still see one of my good early influences, Fr. Greg, strumming his guitar in his gray chasuble.) I doubt that I sang it in 1996 when I would have gone to St. Mary's in New Haven, Connecticut on Ash Wednesday; they were using the GIA Worship hymnal, which doesn't include it, and it isn't the style there besides. Apart from that exception, I'm sure that I've sung "Ashes" on every Ash Wednesday up to--but not including--this one.

Generally speaking, I think it has a lot of musical virtues for congregational singing, and captures something of the spiritual mood of Ash Wednesday. I've heard it bashed theologically, but I think the case is a little overstated. Sure, the "create ourselves" line is a little troubling, but on the whole I think it's a good song, giving some depth to the central sacramental of the ashes and looking forward to Easter and the Resurrection off in the distance. The "we rise again" stuff, in my opinion, is just a way to accomplish this glimpse of the Resurrection, rather than any suggestion that our rising isn't a function of the Rising of Christ. Indeed, I'm happy with anyone who helps us to recall that the whole idea of Lent is our baptism into Christ's death and Resurrection, against all those well-meaning but misguided souls who try to give us 'themes' for Lent, some of which aren't even Christian.

The song is a good example of why we fight about liturgical music and the words that we sing: such words and images exert a powerful influence on the spiritual imagination. Speech--especially as song--is formative. That we can form words first mentally and then physically is one of the primary ways we exercise ourselves as created in the image and likeness of God, who speaks his Word from all eternity. What we say and sing forms--and can deform--that image. As one of my teachers likes to say, "Nobody walks out of church humming the homily."


Barb, sfo said...

It's definitely not in my Top 40, but the kids' choir at Little Brother's school sang it on Ash Wednesday. I imagine I'd have heard it no matter where/when I attended Mass on that day, though.

Your teacher is right: no one leaves church humming the homily. But if we music ministers have fulfilled our role well, people are humming one of the hymns--and hopefully a lyric or two will stick in their heads and inspire them in the coming week. (This weekend we close with "O Bless the Lord" based on Psalm 148. "O bless the Lord, the God of every nation, over all the earth." Sing it! All week long!)

Anonymous said...

Music ministry for me is like yoga, with rhythms that calm and lyrics that soothe. It has focused my attention throughout many a trial on the ONE who promised to make all things new.