Even our most beautiful rituals and reflections can’t bring relief from the reality of death.
I started going to Ash Wednesday services when I was working in New York City, in an office a few blocks from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. From the sidewalk, the cathedral is intimidating, all filigree and turrets. Inside, though, it’s intimate, quiet, and dark, save for a little light filtered through its rose window.
I went to the cathedral only on special occasions like Ash Wednesday, when the professional choir would sing polyphony and spirituals and Gregorian chants. It was astoundingly beautiful, that music—perfectly tuned and perfectly in time, slipping through the incense and the jewel-toned light. I cried in the pew, got my cross of ashes, and went back to work.
Was it wrong to look forward to a service about a subject—my sin, my death—that I was supposed to face with fear and trembling? Maybe. But how could I help it?
It was the same as when we sang requiems and dirges in my college choir, learning the Latin words for loss and telling the story of the Crucifixion in coloratura. In the Howells Requiem, in Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, death moved the choir, and death moved our audience. We’d accept our applause, file from the concert hall, and head off to the afterparty, relieved of a burden we didn’t know we were carrying.
This kind of catharsis isn’t an uncommon experience, even among Christians. There can be a strange beauty in the difficult and the macabre, in silence and penitence. “Lent is my favorite season,” a friend recently told me. “Well, not my favorite. That’s the wrong word. You know what I mean.” And I did. “I’m looking forward to Lent,” said another. That’s not wrong, per se. Many …