The season of Lent is a forty-day period mirroring Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness. During this time, participants devote special attention to the ache of incompletion, suffering, and trial in their lives, both collectively and individually. Hemmed in by Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, Lent begins with the dust of mortality and ends with the broken bread of the Last Supper.
As Lent is traditionally considered a season of “prayer and fasting,” it’s often associated with gloom, giving up chocolate or coffee, and other forms of funlessness. But it’s important to remember that self-denial is not the ultimate goal—in fact, and rather counterintuitively, the hope of Lent is that by acknowledging the depth of our ache, we would be led to greater depths of joy.
N. T. Wright said it beautifully: “Following Jesus means denying yourself, saying ‘no’ to the things that you imagine make up your ‘self,’ and finding to your astonishment that the ‘self’ you get back is more glorious, more joyful than you could have imagined.”
So with this Lent playlist, we offer you some songs that have stirred in us both a greater recognition of our own need and a deeper hope for the restoration that is to come.
Illustration by Ned Bustard, from Doug McKelvey’s liturgy for “Those Who Weep Without Knowing Why”
“Dust We Are and Shall Return” by The Brilliance
A beautiful arrangement of a traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy. —Chris Yokel
“Fell Like A Feather” by Amy Stroup
The line “the light stings as it tears through unbelief” feels about as Lenten as it gets to me. —Kelsey Miller
“Carbon Ribs” by John Mark McMillan
His album The Medicine is still a staple in my Lent to Good Friday listening, mostly because it doesn’t shy away from the grit and reality of life on earth while reaching for the mystery of indwelling spirit and resurrection. This song in particular captures that tension and longing beautifully. —Jen Yokel
“The Trapper and the Furrier” by Regina Spektor
This visceral song exposes the falseness of worldly power with a grief and weariness that whets my appetite for justice. —Drew Miller
“Let It Fall” by Over The Rhine
‘Cause rain and leaves And snow and tears and stars And that’s not all my friend They all fall with confidence and grace So let it fall, let it fall
While I know that this song is from a Christmas album (Blood Oranges in the Snow), it’s articulated the concept of loss for me over the past few years in a way that no other song has done. It’s kind of sat with me in my grief and let me ugly-cry. But it’s also reminded me, over and over again, that, in Gospel-economy, falling into the ground is a death unto life. —Lanier Ivester
“High Noon” by Andrew Peterson
The Lenten season is an annual invitation for us to respond to the events that ushered in a new reality. I’ve always loved Andrew’s song for the way it beckons us, “Let the people rejoice / Let the heavens resound / Let the name of Jesus, who sought us / And freed us forever ring out.” —Matt Conner
“Hard To Get” by Rich Mullins
This is my favorite song Rich ever wrote, and he died before he could record it, but I think the rough demo version he taped as he played his guitar in an old church perfectly captures the raw ache of the song. At one point he invokes Jesus’ sleepless night in the Garden of Gethsemane, the sweat mingled with blood, the anguish, the utter loneliness of a God who understands the depths of our loneliness.
But to me this song feels most like Holy Saturday—the dark space of waiting and confusion and hard, hard trust between the crucifixion and the resurrection, between despair and joy, when we know there are answers to our questions but we can’t quite feel them yet.
“I know that it would not hurt any less even if it could be explained.” “I can’t see how you’re leading me, unless you’ve led me here to where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.” The most honest Christian lyrics I’ve ever heard. —Jennifer Trafton
“Learning How To Die” by Jon Foreman
Jon Foreman meditates on the fact that life is really about coming to grips with our mortality. —Chris Yokel
“The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen
The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great American novels (go read it NOW if you haven’t), and this Springsteen song, which is inspired by Tom Joad’s speech to his Ma near the end of the book, is a great illustration of our longing for justice and equity in the world. —Pete Peterson
“Weeping Mary” by Loud Harp
This short, meditative hymn reminds us that the season of Lent is meant to simplify and focus our over-complicated lives. It doesn’t offer long, theological statements within its lines, but instead brings us back to this elementary truth: Jesus offered rest and a light burden when the world offered sinking anxieties and mournful weeping. —Chris Thiessen
“Parrot in Portugal” by Sandra McCracken
Originally released during Lent last year, this song is a gorgeous example of hope born through suffering. The sense of liberation these melodies carry is the kind we can only find by reckoning fully with our sorrow—the result is a freedom with that distinct taste of having recovered one’s true name. —Drew Miller
“Anytime” by Neil Finn
This is a perfect Ash Wednesday song about the unpredictability of death and the longing to be part of a bigger story. I once sang it at our church’s Tenebrae service. “Although you’re still a mystery, I’m so glad I’m not alone.” —Jill Phillips
“Enough” by Jill DeZwaan
A lovely prayer that reminds me of truths that I constantly seem to lose track of. This song confesses a need to depend on the sufficiency of Christ—even for the very act of depending on the sufficiency of Christ. —Jonny Jimison
“Jesus, Remember Me” (Taizé)
In Luke 23, one of the criminals hanging beside Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is the humble plea of a sinner and a prayer of faith. Taizé is an ecumenical community in France. Their community and many other Christian communities and churches use this song as a meditative chant. These simple words and tune come from the hand of Jacques Berthier, one of the primary composers associated with the community. —Rob Wheeler
“God Rested” by Andrew Peterson
I would choose “God Rested” from the Resurrection Letters Prologue. The music builds behind the steady lyrics, like something grand is approaching and the singer doesn’t know. The whole song ends like a bated breath and makes you lean forward, waiting. —Shigé Clark
What are some songs that express the season of Lent for you? Please share in the comments section!