By Liv Larson Andrews
All these ashes.
At the small urban congregation I serve, we concluded Transfiguration Sunday by singing “All of Us Go Down to the Dust,” ELW 223. The repeated Alleluias helped us confront the grave and the dust: the terrible news of war, the housing crisis in our city, the strained relationships among family and friends at this point in the pandemic.
A little Alleluia goes a long way.
We will bury this Alleluia now. But on Sunday it aided our fellowship and led us to the Eucharist, since we now share the meal following the dismissal in our gymnasium where we can take off our masks more safely and keep physical distance. Ah, the ashen reminders that are our COVID protocols. Mask, vaccination, abundant hand sanitizer. Everyone here is mortal, fragile.
Like several stanzas of a well-written hymn text, there’s a lot going on in these ashes. What will you sing this Lent to explore the layers of meaning here?
There is ash that evokes the dirt of the earth. Ash that is the good soil, the nutritive source, the garden compost. Ashen dirt that will yet yield life. Turn it over, encounter the lively bacteria. Smell summer’s produce waiting to grow.
Then there is ash that evokes burning, annihilation, and destruction. Ash that coats the windows in a city being bombed. Choking ash in the throats of refugee mothers who cannot find food or a safe place to sleep for their children. Homes, schools, sanctuaries, hospitals, train stations and art museums all burned to ash because of greed, power plays, and waste.
All this is here in these ashes. The little clay dish of ash that the presider holds, maybe with a smidge of oil, contains these many realities in a simple sign. Garden nutrition and terrible chokehold are both present here. Life-giving hope and death-dealing fear are entwined in these ashes. And still, we bend to put them on our bodies, singing, “Remember.”
Maybe the music of this Ash Wednesday needs to be a bridge between consoling prayers for peace and cries for change in the streets that our throats also long to raise. We grieve the costs of our unjust systems while also lamenting their existence. Maybe the way we sing can help us find the energy to organize change. I’m feeling that the voice of Joel (call a solemn fast) and the voice Isaiah (away with your dumb rituals) need to be side by side in one Lenten songbook this year.
Today, we will sing ELW 712, “Lord Whose Love in Humble Service,” at our evening Ash Wednesday service. It moves beautifully between our need to call for a moment of reflection—a fast of our attention—and our need to center our focus on the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. It points to all kinds of human suffering, “still your children wander homeless, still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom, still in grief we mourn our dead.”
Consecrating the move from devotion to Jesus to action in community, the hymn meets me where I am this Lent. Three of the four stanzas use the word “love.” Theologian and good-trouble-maker Cornel West teaches that “justice is what love looks in public.” The love sung of here points to our buried Alleluias acting seed-like, going underground in us to bear fruitful living in due time.
Singing and music-making are essential to helping those seeds germinating in ourselves, our congregations, and our communities. Malkia Devich Cyril writes that to give our hands to the work of freedom and social change, we must first give our bodies to the work of grief.
Now is not the time for numbness or forgetting—we don’t sing to escape. Now is the day of salvation. And because there is so much suffering to grieve, we fast. But even in our fasting we keep singing. We sing to deepen our encounter with pain and suffering so that it can become good soil within and between us. “Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go.”
About the Author
Liv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington. She lives about two blocks from the Spokane River with her spouse and two sons. She serves on the board of directors at the Grünewald Guild and on the advisory council for the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. She participated in the Collegeville Institute program Writing to Change the World with Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove in fall 2017.