The Solemn Joy of Lent

The beginning of a new liturgical season calls for a new Spotify playlist: 40 Songs for the 40 Days of Lent. Curating this list has presented a unique challenge: there is a lot of really beautiful music out there that would lead one deeper into Lent, but much of it is very somber. Taken in context, this is not a bad thing; it is certainly appropriate for music to reflect the penitential austerity of the season, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to listen to an entire playlist of funereal minor music. Lent, after all, is not a season without its joys, and these are not simply restricted to Laetare Sunday.

Even in the midst of our penitential practices, each Sunday we still witness with growing anticipation the dismissal of the catechumens and candidates for full communion, knowing that it will not be long before they will gather alongside us around the Eucharistic table. Even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, we rejoice as we hear the Gospels: we marvel in awe at Jesus’s power over sin and temptation, over sickness, even over death itself, and rend our hearts in humble gratitude at the gift of so great a Redeemer. Many parishes offer additional opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, meaning that more people likely receive the grace of God’s forgiveness during this time of year than any other, which is as much cause for rejoicing on earth as it is in heaven (see Luke 15:7).

The joy of Lent is a solemn one. We joyfully shoulder our crosses through our practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, because we know where we’re headed at the end of these forty days: we are preparing to celebrate the Great Three Days, in which Christ triumphs over sin by laying down his life on the Cross, trampling down death by death. Thus, the music on this playlist reflects the paradox of the season: rejoicing in Christ our Savior even as we acknowledge the ways in which we have failed as his disciples, and hoping against hope that the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving undertaken this season will help us leave behind everything that keeps us from our Lord and our God.

The playlist is set up in a particular way: the first 20 songs are contemporary, some even secular, with lyrical themes of forgiveness, conversion, and a sense of journeying toward something greater. The second 20 songs are more explicitly sacred or liturgical, comprising a more classical compositional style. If you prefer to keep musical distinctions tidy, listen to the list straight through. Or, if you want to dive in to the paradox of the season, hit “shuffle play” and throw everything into the mix together. Either way, I genuinely hope that you find some perennial classics as well as some undiscovered gems on this list, and I hope that you are drawn through this music into a deeper contemplation of the God who has redeemed us in Christ.

  1. People Get Ready, Eva Cassidy
    Written in 1965 by Curtis Mayfield, “People Get Ready” was originally inspired by the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., when Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his dream to a crowd of 250,000 people. The song carries with it all the hallmarks of a classic spiritual: biblical rootedness with its mention of the river Jordan, a sense of pilgrimage with its imagery of a journey, and a degree of urgency with the exhortation to prepare oneself. Since Lent is a time of preparation for the Easter celebration, beginning the playlist with this pivotal and significant song sets the right tone for all the music that follows.

  2. I Will Wait, Mumford & Sons
    The explicit Christian imagery in so many of Mumford & Sons’ songs makes their music perfect for contemplation this season. So often Lent becomes a season of Christian machismo, when people take on extreme practices simply for the purpose of proving to themselves (or others) just how much they can offer up or take on. This is an insidious form of neo-Pelagianism, for it puts the emphasis on our own actions, and not on the grace of God. This song, with its insistently repeated litany “I will wait” reminds listeners that the initiative always lies with God, and that any progress we make this Lenten season is due not to our own merits or efforts but solely to God’s loving, providential grace.

  3. The Transfiguration, Sufjan Stevens
    Every year, we hear the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the second Sunday of Lent. Peter, James, and John—and we—are given a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity shining through his humanity so that we might be strengthened when we see Jesus arrested, beaten, mocked, tortured, and put to death. We see a glimpse of the glory that awaits us as well. All who are united to Jesus in Baptism, who follow him in a life of faithful discipleship, will be caught up in the blinding radiance of his divine glory. Sufjan Stevens’ music conveys this beautifully: the movement from one simple instrument and one voice gradually grows to encompass multiple instruments and voices, providing an image of Christ’s Body being built up in the world as all join the song intoned by the Head.

  4. Long Time Traveller, The Wailin’ Jennys
    This traditional tune was originally titled “White” and was written in the mid- to late-19th century by Edmund Dumas, an American Primitive Baptist minister and prominent figure in The Sacred Harp movement, a tradition of hymn-singing using shape notation. The lyrics speak of setting aside “these fleeting charms of earth” in favor of “a better home on high.” The Lenten practice of fasting is often undertaken as a means to cultivate an ascetical detachment from earthly things in preparation for the eternal life of heaven. In its simplicity, this gorgeous three-part a capella arrangement by The Wailin’ Jennys strips the music down to its most essential, performing the very asceticism the lyrics advocate.

  5. Irrational Season, Audrey Assad
    One of Audrey Assad’s most stunning originals (which is saying something), this song beckons listeners to see the deeper Logos, the deeper reason, in the seeming irrationality of this season. In the eyes of the world, it may not make much sense to spend six weeks observing more intense practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but in the eyes of the Christian, this “irrational season” opens us up to Christ, the Incarnate Logos, the Word made flesh who always goes before us in the journey “to the edge of reason, where love burns bright and clear.” Let us follow where our Savior leads, into the wilderness, “to the peace that’s past understanding.”

  6. Through Heaven’s Eyes, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Company, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, The Prince of Egypt
    Confession: I watch The Prince of Egypt every year after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. This film captivated me immediately way back in 1997 when it was first released: the burning bush, the plagues, and the crossing of the Red Sea are all visually stunning and theologically rich. What resonated with me most, though, was its extraordinary music (songs by Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz, who penned Godspell and Children of Eden, not to mention Wicked; score by Hans Zimmer, who created the iconic instrumental music for Disney’s The Lion King). This song in particular is one worth returning to again and again, especially in those moments when we’re not able to see ourselves as God does. Lent helps to train our gaze and sharpen our focus not only so that we can learn to see those things in our lives that keep us from God, but also—and perhaps more importantly—so that we can learn to see ourselves aright, as beloved children of our loving Father.

  7. All Will Be Well, Gabe Dixon Band
    It doesn’t get much more profound than the opening lyrics of this song: “The new day dawns, and I am practicing my purpose once again.” The speaker in the song acknowledges repeated failure in living up to this purpose, just as undoubtedly any Christian will have to acknowledge repeated failures in living up to the identity bestowed on us in Christ through our Baptism. The Christian life is hard. Lent can be an especially difficult season. But, “even after all the promises you’ve broken to yourself, all will be well. You can ask me how but only time will tell.” God’s mercy is new every morning (see Lamentations 3:22–23); it is there for you to embrace as you practice your purpose once again, and once again after that, and once again after that until forever. “Keep it up. Don’t give up.” Persevere.

  8. What Wondrous Love is This, Josh Garrells and Mason Jar Music
    A perennially favorite of the Lenten season, this hymn text dates from 1811, written during the Second Great Awakening of American Protestantism. Its evocative tune predates the text, and the two were first paired together in The Southern Harmony hymnal, one of the most important collections of shape note singing ever compiled. South Bend native Josh Garrels offers an earthy cover here from a live recording made on an artist’s retreat in Vancouver, British Columbia. Garrels’ voice sounds like something one would hear on an old-timey phonograph, infusing the well-worn yet still-poignant lyrics with a kind of ragged hopefulness.

  9. Slaves, Penny and Sparrow
    This song stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. From the drop-tuning in the guitar, to the lyrical strings, to the pitch-perfect vocals, everything about it quietly insists that you stop everything you’re doing and simply listen. Not only that, but the relationship between the music and lyrics is, aptly enough, a musical match made in heaven: shot through with scriptural imagery, the simple words remind the listener that those in Christ are no longer slaves to sin; rather, we are, like Saint Paul, slaves and servants of Christ Jesus (see Romans 1:1). Yet, we are so much more than slaves, so much more than servants, even so much more than friends (see John 15:15). As the lyrics declare with confident joy, “We are the Bride, we are the Bride. He will return to claim us, run down the aisle.” We are the Bride, and we are preparing this season to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of our Bridegroom, from whose open side we are reborn in water and blood (see John 19:33–34).

  10. Come Further Up, Sarah Sparks
    This final track on Indiana native Sarah Sparks’ debut album Into the Lantern Waste takes its title from the leitmotif of the final chapter in The Last Battle, the final book of C.S. Lewis’ beloved heptalogy The Chronicles of Narnia. As Jewel the Unicorn exclaims, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for, though I never knew it till now. . . . Come further up, come further in!” Each Lenten season is always an invitation to ascend ‘further up and further in’ to the heart of God by descending further into the wellspring of divine grace. Such a descent is only possible if one cultivates a spirit of self-forgetting through hidden acts of humble prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

You can access the complete 40 song playlist below or at this link or by searching for the phrase "Lent: 40 Songs for 40 Days" in Spotify.

Featured Image: Claude TRUONG-NGOC, Messe des Cendres Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Strasbourg, 5 March 2014; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music. She is the author of Praying the Rosary Together.

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