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The Jazz of Lent

Cliff cross posterIt is heartening to see how jazz has made its way into the worship and ministry of the Church during the past forty years. There was a time when jazz was labeled the “devil’s music,” but our cultural acceptance of diverse expressions has shifted and even some of the most traditional members in our churches recognize the spiritual depth that jazz can bring to worship. Jazz can be a great catalyst/spiritual discipline for our worship at any time of the Church year. And with Ash Wednesday upon us it is appropriate to recognize the possibilities for jazz during this sacred season of Lent.

Culturally, Lent is preceded by a brief time of anticipatory and, sometimes, raucous celebration. The tradition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans) and Carnival (Central and South America) provide one last fling just prior to the forty days of fasting and penance that has traditionally marked the season of Lent. Many churches are now celebrating Mardi Gras Sunday, often with a Dixieland band to offer the final “hurrah” before the deep introspection and solemn season to follow. One congregation I was a member of brings back the same Dixieland band every year to offer up “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” just prior to the pancake breakfast. All the “alleluia symbols” in the sanctuary are taken down and hidden until Easter Sunday. I’ve heard of one church employing Caribbean steel drums in worship, while another features their children/youth band.

In many churches, mid-week Lenten services offer a reflective time to utilize jazz in worship. I’ve led jazz worship on Ash Wednesday, creating a meditative environment to reflect on Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel about how to fast, offer alms, be at prayer and to ultimately affirm that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21).

The Sundays in Lent offer unique opportunities for sacred jazz, especially the talent of improvisation when reflecting on the themes of Jesus’ journey—into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13), the transfiguration on the mountaintop Mark 9:2-9), the encounter with the man born blind (John 9: 1-41). Improvisation can tell the story without even one word sung.

The events of Holy Week offer unique possibilities for jazz worship—Palm Sunday: a time to share exuberant hosannas; Maundy Thursday: prayerful melodies undergirding the sacrament of Holy Communion; Good Friday: tailor made for the blues expressing the down-to-earth pain of life and death; Saturday night vigil: jazz musicians forming the experiential thread through the ancient liturgy. And this is all before the joyful celebration of Easter!

So rather than conform entirely to the traditional organ music of Lent, why not let jazz provide a new way to experience the depth of this profound and powerful season?

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