Crazy as it sounds, I love Ash Wednesday. Partially, I think, because it seems like such a mystical, old-world observance. Bowing my head to receive a cross of ashes while the pastor or priest intones, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I could feel almost like I’m a robed penitent in some ancient cathedral.
But when it comes to music for this somber service, older hymns can’t stir my soul the way these three contemporary songs can.
1. “Beautiful Things” by Gungor
This gem made quite a splash at Catalyst in 2010, with its irregular cadence and haunting melody. Before I learned the verses, I could sing the chorus over and over like a Taize-style chant—and why not? The chorus is beautiful, and a simple, eloquent reminder of God’s grace and our own impermanence. “You make beautiful things / you make beautiful things out of dust. / You make beautiful things / you make beautiful things out of us.”
I first heard the song played with a full worship band during a series on Job, and the opening lyrics about pain and despair certainly make it a great choice for such a theme as well.
2. “Worlds Apart” by Jars of Clay
This one might be considered an “oldie” in the scheme of Christian music, from Jars of Clay’s 1995 debut album. My favorite song on that album is one that I probably didn't appreciate when I got that cassette tape in my Christmas stocking that year, but over time I’ve come to find it spiritually gut-wrenching—in a good way. The song, "Worlds Apart," uses the title phrase first in the sense of what a great chasm there is between what we are and the way we should be. "All I am for all You are / what I need and what I believe are worlds apart."
Toward the end of the song, the words "worlds apart" shift, becoming part of a prayer for God's help in bringing us closer to that ideal self: “Steal my heart and take the pain, wash my feet and cleanse my pride, take the selfish, take the weak, and all the things I cannot hide / . . . Take my world all apart. . . / watch the world I used to love fall to dust and blow away . . .”
The song is a radical (and terrifying) invitation to God to come into your life and do whatever it takes for you to serve God and the world in the most Christlike way possible. Perfect for leading people into the self-examination and self-improvement that often come with the season of Lent.
3. “Who Am I” by Casting Crowns
Lastly, this song by Casting Crowns evokes the change in perspective that should come with the start of Lent. Ash Wednesday’s “remember that you are dust” message speaks to the brevity and impermanence of life, and the weight one's relationship with God carries in comparison. “Who Am I” balances those concepts so perfectly:
"I am a flower quickly fading / here today and gone tomorrow / a wave tossed in the ocean / a vapor in the wind. / Still, You hear me when I'm calling / You catch me when I'm falling / and You told me who I am. / I am Yours."
That "still" is so poignant, offering the listener the dual comfort of knowing the difficulties of one's life are fleeting, and that despite our smallness—our dustiness, if you will—God still cares.