Lenten Carols

When most of us think of holiday music, we probably imagine annoying pop renditions of Christmas classics. If we can stretch our imaginations beyond carols and crooners, we might extend our definition of holiday music to include a patriotic number like “I’m Proud to Be an American” or a Halloween novelty piece like “The Monster Mash.”  Either way, Holiday music is supposed to be happy music — or at least commemorate happy holidays. Mardis Gras, for example, has inspired songs by Paul Simon and Dierks Bentley, as well as the fifties’ feel-good classic, “Mardis Gras Mambo,” by the Hawketts. But what about the day after Fat Tuesday? Ash Wednesday and the ensuing Lenten season seems unlikely to inspire new music. Who wants to write about our connection to death, suffering, and sacrifice? This year, however, two seasoned Christian artists released projects just in time for Lent. Andrew Peterson’s Resurrection Letters: Prologue and Sandra McCracken’s Songs from the Valley each welcome Lent with carols for the season of sacrifice. And both projects invite the listener into a safe space of mourning and contemplation, while still sparking the hope of the Easter season to come.

Andrew Peterson’s Resurrection Letters: Prologue is the prequel to his full album, Resurrection Letters: Volume 1, which will release this Easter.  Ever the storyteller, Peterson could not simply jump into the Christian narrative at its climax in Christ’s resurrection. So he has given us this “Prologue” as a meditation on Christ’s death. 

In an unusual move, the EP skips talk of the crucifixion itself with its images of blood and atonement. Instead, it begins with a musical setting of Christ’s seven last utterances on the cross and ends with a meditation on Christ’s burial. Over its five tracks, the EP dwells on the worst possible moment: the moment of God’s death.  Now, all that death talk may seem morbid or maudlin. But this EP manages to deal truthfully with feelings of abandonment, sorrow, and grief while still pointing to hope.

The song “Always Good” accomplishes that balance between suffering and pain in typical Andrew Peterson fashion. In the song, Peterson approaches God in the conversational tones of a close friend, confessing doubt, while acknowledging that “this heartache is moving me closer than joy ever could and you’re always good.” The second track, “Well Done, Good and Faithful” elaborates on Christ’s identification with David’s Psalms of suffering, while affirming the reward awaiting Christ at the right hand of the Father. Even “Last Words (Tenebrae),” which draws its lyrics directly from scripture, dwells in the tension between sorrow and hope. The track’s layered vocals place each of Jesus’s last phrases in a fugue-like pattern,  so that the individual statements interweave and harmonize with all the others.  The resulting juxtapositions merge Jesus’s human need with His divine power. For example, Jesus’s cry of abandonment, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” merges with his promise of heaven, “today, you will be with me in paradise.” In that moment, deep sorrow and true hope spring from the same source.

Sandra McCracken’s new project, Songs from the Valley, also explores the paradox of hope in the midst of suffering. The album dropped on Ash Wednesday, and she has been releasing meditative blog entries for each track on the album every week in Lent. For the last few years, McCracken has released projects filled with songs based directly on Scripture. (Psalms and God’s Highway for example). Though the tracks on Songs from the Valley were written during the same period, they take a more personal narrative turn. In the midst of ruminations on heartache and personal loss in “Fool’s Gold,” she returns to the refrain, “But if it’s not okay, then this is is not the end.” Her valley lament never shies from doubt or depression, but it always looks to the mountain on the other side of that valley. Throughout her valley journey, McCracken pictures God as a kind friend, who gives glimpses of beauty in a bright moon on a dark night.  That God, who gives good gifts even as He allows terrible pain, provokes an album that almost revels in paradox. McCracken confesses to the strange coexistence of love and hate, forgiveness and resentment, doubt and hope. Camping out in such tension yields a reward in the album’s closing image: “Rise up, oh my soul; love is letting go…rise up, let go.” Though we may believe letting go — of expectations, resentments, and fears — would cause us to fall deeper into the valley, it is finally our letting go that helps us rise out of the pit.

Our English word, “Lent” comes from an Old English word meaning “spring season.” Today, we use the word Lent to refer to the season of penitence, not the season of blossoming new life. But both meanings live in Lent. And both meanings shine in these songs that I think will become your new “holiday” favorites.