Singing Lent, Ash Wednesday: “Shall We Gather at the River?”

I realized something important as I was preparing to share this reflection: if you want to get to be clever, tell cute stories and funny jokes, if you want to draw on amusing anecdotes… don’t choose Ash Wednesday as the day to start your devotional series. It’s always nice to start something like this with a sort of ice-breaker, a little story to get us all on the same wavelength, but it’s very difficult to find funny Ash Wednesday jokes to break the ice. 

Maybe that’s the thing about Ash Wednesday though, and the thing about Lent; we’re all on the same wavelength even without the cute anecdotes, because we all know what it feels like to weep, to mourn, to have our hearts broken. 

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the liturgical season of Lent–a season that has not typically been a big part of Baptist life. Maybe, like me, you can remember first being aware that there were people walking around with vaguely cross-shaped smudges on their foreheads. I remember it clearly–we lived in suburban Chicago when I was in junior high, and there was a group of kids who divided their days between the nearby Catholic school and our public middle school. At an age where all any of us wanted was to blend in, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for those 12- and 13-year-olds to bear the Lenten ashes through the raucous hallways of junior high.

I thought of them years later, when I was in seminary and participated in an Ash Wednesday service for the first time. I remember the feel of the worship leader’s thumb, crossing my forehead with ashes, and I remember hearing the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I remember, for the first time, being aware that Easter was more than a single day with its “He Lives!” hymns and its bunnies and baskets… how the observance of Lent could deepen my connection with the God who came to earth not just to die, but to walk with us through life, all the way to the cross, and beyond.

Like Advent, Lent is a season of anticipation. In Advent we anticipate the coming newborn King; in Lent we anticipate his cross and empty tomb. In Advent, we follow the star to Bethlehem; during Lent we turn our hearts, as Jesus did, toward Jerusalem. With him, we anticipate that last Passover festival, the Hosannah-filled and palm-lined entry into the city, the days of trial, nights of betrayal, and the final hours of agony; we anticipate the three days of waiting, and we anticipate at last his triumph over death.

I’ve come to believe Lent is an important time–a necessary time. By walking with Christ through those final weeks, and walking with one another on the journey of Lent, we become part of his wondrous story. We become part of the story of his ministry, of his prayers, of his inner circle. We become part of his temptation in the wilderness, part of his righteous anger in the temple. We become part of his life and of his passion. In some traditions, Lent is the season when people prepare for baptism–and on Easter Sunday, they become part of Jesus’ story in a tactile way, when on Resurrection Sunday they are “raised with him to walk in newness of life.”

The Lenten season has become synonymous with “giving something up”–as in “I’m giving up chocolate or Coke or coffee for Lent”–in an attempt, even in some small way, to echo the fasting of Jesus on his 40-day wilderness wandering. Some people will choose to “fast” from habits that hold them back from growing more Christlike; they may specifically attempt to stop gossiping, to let go of anger, to stem unhealthy obsessions and preoccupations. Others see Lent as a time to undertake a new discipline: to pray more consistently, to immerse in the scriptures, to minister to others in acts of service. In every case, those who are on the Lenten journey share an anticipation of the resurrection that is to come, when we experience once again Christ’s new, triumphant life, when Easter day breaks and the risen Lord greets us.

It’s a journey we dare not undertake lightly. A journey that changes us, from the inside out, making us new creations, cannot begin on a whim, so on Ash Wednesday our task is to try to find an appropriate way to set out on the Lenten journey. It’s not a spring break road trip that we can rush into with rock and roll on the radio and the wind in our hair. It’s a long, hungry, blistering walk through a hurting and sometimes hurtful world; it’s a pilgrimage that changed history, and that changes us, and we must prepare our hearts for the path. The words of the poet, the prophet Joel, summon us to begin:

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Sanctify thecongregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even the infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. (Joel 2:12-17a)

Joel reminds us that Lent is not a solitary road, where a scattering of individuals with smudges of ash on their foreheads trudge dutifully through life like awkward middle-schoolers, isolated from the crowds. Christ wandered alone in his wilderness, but we, as his body, cannot help but walk together. John Wesley wrote, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” Young and old, men and women, priests and people–the prophet Joel calls us all to be one assembly, one congregation; gathering us in from our busy-ness, from our families, from our big events, and even from our church work, to turn back toward God.

In the sweltering summer of 1864, in Brooklyn, a Baptist pastor named Robert Lowry spent his days ministering to the victims of a deadly epidemic–what may have been any number of plagues that were rampant at the time; it may have been yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, or typhus. In complete exhaustion, surrounded by suffering and death, Robert Lowry had a vision. He later described it this way: “I was almost incapable of bodily exertion and my imagination began to take wings. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness… I began to wonder why the hymn writers had said so much about the ‘River of Death’ and so little about the pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb. As I mused, the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry, ‘Shall we gather?’ Then, they broke out in chorus, as an answer of Christian faith, ‘Yes, we’ll gather!’ On this question and answer the hymn, Shall We Gather at the River was born.”

From the sickbeds and deathbeds of the city, the hymnwriter envisioned his restored congregation, worshipping at the river side. The prophet summoned his assembly to repentance, even while an infestation of locusts decimated the land, and invading armies threatened. Today we can name any number of epidemics that afflict our families, our communities, our world–and they may be spiritual plagues for which there are no pesticides, and no vaccines. Yet today, as ever, we are summoned to worship and to repent.

So shall we gather?–the prophet calls us, and on this Ash Wednesday we answer, yes–yes, we’ll gather, to begin the Lenten journey together. We’ll pray with the psalmist, “have mercy on us, O God… erase our transgressions… purge us, make us clean… sustain our willing spirit…” We’ll sing with all the saints beside the flowing river, bringing our burdens to lay at God’s feet. We’ll kneel shoulder to shoulder with tears in our eyes, with our hearts torn from every grief we cannot bear and every wrong that shatters us. We’ll gather with stomachs grumbling from the fast, trusting God to fill our emptiness. We’ll gather before the throne with the world’s weight on our shoulders, because we know that this hurting, sometimes hurtful world is beloved, and redeemable. We who are creatures of dust will gather before the Source of Life, trusting our journey to the One who transforms us from Ash Wednesday people, full of grief, to Easter Sunday people, with Hallelujahs on our lips.

God, you who scooped up the dust of Eden

and breathed life into it

and shaped it in your own image–

breathe also your spirit into us,

though we, too, are dust

and return to the dust.

Mark our hearts with the ashes of repentance.

Sanctify us as one assembly,

one congregation of pilgrims

seeking to follow you on the journey of Lent.

Have mercy on us. Cleanse us. Sustain us.

Surround us with your steadfast love,

and gather us again

to sing your wondrous story.



Interestingly, considering “Shall We Gather” was written in Brooklyn, and the tune later arranged by Aaron Copland (also from Brooklyn!) the song seems to be thought of as a rural spiritual, and was recorded by MANY country artists! If you’re into that, you might enjoy covers by Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Dolly, Andy Griffith, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and even the Hee-Haw Gospel Quartet.

For not-country fans, here’s a little soul-full acapella from Take 6, a beautiful classical rendering by the Smith College Glee Club, and (maybe my favorite of them all) New Orleans jazz with Thais Clark.

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