A Playlist for Your Lenten Journey

by | Mar 2, 2022 | Lent, Music

At a house party in my early twenties, I was manning the Bluetooth speaker and playing tunes I liked. After a blissful hour of music chosen by someone with impeccable taste, I remember a young woman I knew coming up to me and saying, “So were you thinking that, like, someone else would get to play their music at some point?” 

We all secretly (or in our early twenties, not so secretly) feel that the things we like are the best things–thank God for the honest souls who push us to laugh our way out of that over the years. What follows is, admittedly, not the best Lenten playlist out there, but it’s one I like. And I guess the benefit of listening to someone else’s music for a little while is moving around in a taste not quite our own. 

Below are twelve tracks, one for each Sunday and holiday in Lent. The song selections are inspired mainly by the readings of the day. Maybe read a reading and then listen, or listen after Mass, or just jam out with no verbal accompaniment. Each is followed by a brief suggestion for prayer. I tried to choose songs off the beaten path of religious music, songs I might listen to just for the pleasure of it, without any explicitly confessional content. I hope that for you, as for me, these songs help you to feel the meaning of Lent a little closer to home, tradition and liturgy in the idiom of popular music. Or, they may simply pique your appetite for a turn to put your own music on.

Ash Wednesday

“Won’t you open a window sometimes? What’s so wrong with the light?” Ash Wednesday is solemn but not desolate. Repentance implies the possibility of something different, something better. We repent, Anthony DeMello says, because the spiritual life requires a turning away from ourselves to a light that is bigger than us. Ash Wednesday is the day we open the windows, let down the pretense. “Lent,” after all, is an old English word that means “spring.” Today we can grieve our resignation to cold and darkness, because something better is available. Something better is coming.

For your prayer: “What’s so wrong with the light?” Is there a freedom that God is calling you to that you are denying yourself? (Freedom from something, freedom for something?) Are there excuses you make for not being as happy and free as you could be? How do the demands you place on yourself affect other people?

First Sunday of Lent

“Allah, Allah, Allah.” As Paul says in today’s reading from Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Arabic-speaking Christians also refer to God as “Allah.”) The pastor of my grandma’s church once explained to me that Deuteronomy 26 (today’s first reading) is a statement of identity: who God is, and who God’s people are. God “brought us out of Egypt,” God is Liberator, and God’s people “lived as an alien” in a foreign land, “maltreated and oppressed.” In “Roses,” Freeway “prays to whom my brothers pray to.” In the midst of the world’s lovelessness–the burden of which is unevenly shared (“that sounds like rich and poor if you ask me”)–“Roses” reminds us who God is, and who God’s people are. The fact that Smif-N-Wessun use Islamic language reminds us that, at least since the 19th century, Black intellectuals have questioned whether Christianity is an essentially European religion, due to its appropriation by white people to justify slavery. That suspicion is part of the origin story of the Nation of Islam, along with other forms of Black American Islam. That such a question should even need to be asked is one of the great tragedies of not only American but Christian history more generally. Jesus is the One because he weathers the temptation to power and remembers who God is, and who God’s people are.

For your prayer: When’s the last time you went to Mass? How do you think about being “the people of God”? How concrete is that idea for you? Invite God to help you consider the place of community in your life. The Church on earth is the Church Militant, the people of God struggling through history. How are you connected to that struggle? “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (Dr. Lilla Watson, indigenous artist and writer)

Second Sunday of Lent

I’ve always associated this song with the martyrdom of St. Stephen. You have to get down into it and let it wash over you. Around the four minute mark, the song opens up, like I imagine the heavens did when Stephen looked up mid-stoning and “saw the glory of God.” In today’s first reading, Abraham looks up at the night sky: “Number the stars,” God tells him. In the same vein of wonder, Paul tells us today that “our citizenship is in heaven,” and that when Christ comes again, “he will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” Look up; do not let your mind be occupied with earthly things. At the end of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the title character is overcome by the joy of reuniting with his long-lost daughter. In an enraptured moment, Pericles hears something from beyond: “But hark, what music?” Those with him hear nothing, but he insists: “The music of the spheres! List, my Marina.” Sweet, heavenly music of the celestial spheres. Today’s readings afford us, like Peter, James, and John were afforded at the Transfiguration, a glimpse of the cosmic scope of our journey with and to God: look up.

For your prayer: Try to see some stars–maybe go for a night walk. Consider the fact that we are quite literally made of stardust. Are the things that we believe as Christians more absurd than the absurdity of anything existing at all? Has cynicism been masquerading as “common sense” in your life at all?

Solemnity of St. Joseph

I remember listening to this song in Denver, driving home from a visit with a branch of the family I hadn’t seen in years. It was July 2015, my first year in the novitiate, and maybe my happiest moment so far as a Jesuit. I’m not sure what it was–this song, the joy of family in far-flung places, or just that feeling of freedom that comes with driving, windows down, on a summer night. This song has come to embody for me the tingle of that moment, that life as a Jesuit might be a life not just of duty but of happiness, too. Today’s celebration of St. Joseph is a celebration of God’s faithfulness to his promises. God tells Nathan that David’s heir will rule forever, and that God “will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to God.” Nathan couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams how fully and generously God would fulfill that promise. Things would turn out not just better than Nathan could have imagined, but also… differently. Joseph is ready to divorce Mary: this is not the way he saw things going. There’s a sober, mature joy in the Belle and Sebastian song, the joy not just of triumph, but also of acceptance: “We don’t have the money… Forget about it honey.” Living by faith means, as St. Paul says of Abraham, “hoping against hope.” We are the heirs of a long line of those who believed in the One who “calls into being what does not exist,” from Abraham, to Joseph, to today. God will fulfill her promises, and she will fulfill them in her own way. It might call forth more anonymity than we anticipate, as it did for Joseph, but it will be no less joyful for that. Joseph, patron saint of a summer night, of quiet confidence in God’s promises. “Make me dance/I want to surrender.”

For your prayer: This song and this feast celebrate God involving Joseph personally in God’s plan for salvation. Make a list of God’s gifts in your life. See if you can identify 7 that feel like they were just for you.

Third Sunday of Lent

There aren’t many things that all Christians agree on, but one of them surely is that The Prince of Egypt is one of the best Bible movies ever made. Even nonbelievers have gotten a kick out of it over the years. God bless DreamWorks for realizing that telling the Moses story as it Scripturally is would make for excellent and edifying entertainment. The call scene, in which Moses encounters God in the burning bush, is worth rewatching. Moses hears his name: Moses, Moses… He in turn wants to know the name of the one calling him. God responds with the divine name: “I am that I am.” (Or, a translation I prefer, “I am who I am.”) This God with a name like being itself, this God whose name is not a name, has had enough of his people’s suffering, and wants to send Moses to set them free. The Lord is kind and merciful. When Moses protests his unworthiness, God thunders his indifference: your sense of inadequacy will not impede my plan, my compassion for my people. It’s time to step up. Yes, God knows Moses by name, and stoops down into history out of love for his people. But put up or shut up–fig tree with no figs gets the ax. Today we, like Moses in The Prince of Egypt, can let exhilaration at being called by the voice of “I am who I am” surpass our fears of inadequacy: that’s where the fruit comes from. 

For your prayer: This is a kids’ movie, and the stories of the Old Testament, including the Moses story, have that epic feel that so many of us love as kids. Write a letter to yourself now, from your 8-year-old self. You could also write a letter to yourself from your 80-year-old self. The Mysterious Nameless One knows your name and is calling you forth on the journey of life.

Solemnity of the Annuciation

Winter cold lingering, not yet emerged from the before-times, an angel comes down. As Isaiah shows us with Ahaz, letting humans ask for what they want hasn’t worked out so well. God is going to have to take some initiative. We can imagine Joseph hearing this Old Testament passage in synagogue and realizing that maybe his pregnant fiancée really is telling the truth. Something big, something new is afoot: hear it in the slow build at the start of “Carousels,” Doves’ first song after an eleven-year hiatus. “Why are we living this life we’re fitted to?/I’m gonna take you down…” It’s time for God’s going-under. The cosmic joy in that tiny moment, when Mary says, “May it be done to me according to your Word,” and Gabriel turns away saying nothing, speaking volumes: Oh, it’s on…  

For your prayer: How is God calling you? The work that began with Mary isn’t over yet.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Reconciliation Sunday, Prodigal Son Sunday, a good Sunday for some acoustic sweetness. In the first reading, the Israelites have made it to the Promised Land, and the magic of manna from heaven stops. Now for Passover, and for every other season, they’ll need to make bread like everybody else. Be reconciled to the land; let the exhilarating uncertainty of the desert go. Bill Callahan is standing on the threshold and doesn’t want to go, but he also doesn’t quite know what to say. One thing is clear: “It’s never easy to say goodbye to the faces/So rarely do we see another one/So close and so long.” We can imagine a thought like this going through the Prodigal Son’s head before he realized it was time to go home. And this is certainly the thought that fills his father with compassion and causes him to toss scorn and reprimand to the wind. 

Both the ancient Israelites and the Prodigal Son have to give up something spectacular, something sensational: the Israelites, supernatural food; and the Prodigal Son, a life of unbridled jouissance. The real joy that’s eluded them is simpler and closer to home than they realized. Sometimes to find it, we need to leave and come back again.

For your prayer: Who are some of the people for whom you’re most grateful? Consider not only people from your life now, but people who have come and gone. Thinking about past relationships can bring up some regret. Consider the people who have loved and accepted you, even when you weren’t half the person you are now.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

This song is taken from an album called Promises. Today, on the last Sunday before Holy Week, we need to listen, prepare for a radical shift in perspective. We have to try to hear what’s breaking through. “See, I am doing something new–can you not perceive it?” The alternative is frightening: the murderous certainty of the men who dare Jesus to keep them from violence. Everything Paul once found validation in now seems, mercifully, worthless. As the symphony builds around it, let the mantra lift you up along God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus, wordlessly buoyant, undeterred by our fear and the ways we inflict it on other people. “In the desert I make a way.”

For your prayer: What are you longing for? Talk to God about some of the possibilities you have imagined, are imagining, for yourself and for the world.

Palm Sunday

This is for all you Game of Thrones fans out there. In the season three finale, Daenerys Targaryen frees the slaves of Yunkai, and they hail her as “Mhysa,” or mother. It’s an important moment not only for the freed slaves but also for Daenerys, who sees for the first time what a good and strong ruler she can be. Daenerys has been demeaned and overlooked as a woman, and freeing the Yunkish shows her that she can be a sovereign, and a sovereign of a different kind, a champion of the demeaned and overlooked. Palm Sunday is Jesus’ moment, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, simultaneously mocking the ostentation of Roman processions on horseback and fulfilling ancient messianic prophecies: a champion, but of the people. When the Pharisees insist that Jesus deflect the attention, he responds by saying, “If they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” What a beautifully strong moment of nonchalance: Jesus laughs at these self-serious (male) guardians of the old way, because he knows exactly who he is.

For your prayer: Imagine Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey, maybe smiling as people lovingly throw palm fronds before him. What do you love about Jesus? One of the great joys of being Christian is the belief that the universe doesn’t scorn our desire for a hero. What makes Jesus that for you personally, in the heart of your heart?

Holy Thursday

Tonight, we weep. Sweet Jesus knows he will have to walk this last part of the road alone. In the great mystery of the universe, the hero has to finish her journey alone, and her sacrifice wins our freedom. We weep for Jesus, who in his last hour wants his followers, his friends, to know how they will be able to find him once he’s gone: “Do this in memory of me.” Like us, they are not only sad, but confused. Surely we, too, feel Peter’s Never: “Never demean yourself, Lord, never wash my feet.” See with what tender firmness Jesus wants to help him understand. Bulgarian folk music has that feel of something ancient, something that binds us all together. I do this for the ancestors. The Christian legacy is undoubtedly mixed. But I can’t help but believe that for every nine of them that felt the Church a burden and an absurdity, there was one who wept to hear the story that begins tonight, who felt they had never heard anything more beautiful. For them, for Jesus, we continue to tell it.

For your prayer: Think on the ancestors. In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, “In eternity this world will be like Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” The dead salute us, we salute the dead. And think of Jesus’ loneliness, that, human that he was, it must have broken his heart to go the end alone.

Good Friday

This is another soundtrack nod, from season 1 of Big Little Lies. The show is, loosely speaking, about domestic conflict. Nothing is quite right at home; there is brokenness even in the heart of things. But in certain recurring moments, especially when Reese Witherspoon and her daughter are playing Chopsticks on the piano together, this song will sweep in. The waves of Big Sur roll in the background, and what Albert Camus called “the benevolent indifference” of the universe makes itself mercifully felt. In God’s plan, finding grace isn’t going to involve trying to ignore all the evil and violence in the world: it’s bigger than that. Jesus’ suffering is meant to put a stop to ours. “By his stripes we were healed”… “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens.” Today, with the weight of the ocean crashing on the rocks, we feel the price that was paid to bring that level of depth and compassion into the human frame.

For your prayer: Take some time today to be without words. Consider our radical dependence on God.  Jesus by his suffering and death has accomplished our salvation. Lent is letting down pretense. We don’t earn the right to be here, and we don’t earn love.

Holy Saturday

“You’ve been leading me/Beside strange waters.” We know today is a day of emptiness and devastation. In a less overwhelmed moment, the disciples may have thought, along the lines of this song, about all that they had seen. The Lenten journey ends here, at the foot of the cross, at the mouth of the sealed tomb. “Where is my pastureland/In these dark valleys?” To the extent that faith remained at all, the disciples could at least be sure of one thing: God was doing something–obscurely, even brutally–unexpected. Losing all assurance is, at its best, a kind of openness. “If I lose my grip/Will I take flight?” Lent ends in the longing with which it began. “Streams of beautiful/Lights in the night…” Where are they leading?

For your prayer: How has this Lent been for you? Ask for the grace to see yourself as God sees you, as a person with depth navigating a rich and complex spiritual experience of the world. Where are you coming from? Where might you be headed? Share with God your gratitude and disappointment. God, we are ready for you to do something new, so ready…


Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash.