Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Sign Us with Ashes'

History of Hymns: 'Sign Us with Ashes'

By Ee Hwee Wong

Mel Bringle headshot
Mary Louise Bringle

“Sign Us with Ashes”
by Mary Louise Bringle
Glory to God, 433

Sign us with ashes, merciful God,
children of dust, as to dust we return.
Sign us with ashes, merciful God.
Mark us and make us your own.

Stanza 1:
Surely, you alone can save us.
You pay our price with precious blood.
Reaching through your great compassion,
you lift up your people with love.*
*© 2006 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Sign us with ashes” was first published in In Wind and Wonder (2007), an anthology of Mary Louise Bringle’s poems paired with a musical setting for each text. Bringle (b. 1953) is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina, a past president of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (2008–2010), the chair of the committee responsible for Glory to God (2013), the most recent denominational hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a prolific award-winning hymn writer. She wrote the refrain text in 2003 after composer William P. Rowan (b. 1951) suggested to her a need “for a hymn with a stanza/refrain structure that could be sung alternately by a choir (or cantor) and congregation during an Ash Wednesday service as people moved forward to receive the imposition of ashes” (Bringle, 2007, p. 120).

“The refrain incorporates the traditional words used during the imposition (“Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you will return”) and employs both repetition and alliteration (“mark us and make us”) as mnemonic devices, enabling people to remember the text readily enough to sing it while processing, without having to carry a hymnal,” wrote Bringle. The text is reminiscent of Genesis 3:19, Isaiah 40:7 (Bringle, 2007, p. 120), and the Latin trope Memento mori. What followed thereafter was a synergistic collaboration. Upon receiving the refrain text, Rowan wrote the tune for both the refrain and stanza. Bringle then wrote the stanza lyrics. She often writes with a specific tune in mind, collaborating with tune writers and drawing inspiration from their music, which in turn gives life to her hymn texts (Stern, Canterbury Dictionary).

As expressed in the refrain, the recognition of the frailty and uncertainty of human life is contrasted with the certitude of the goodness and power of God in the stanzas. With Rowan’s tune for the stanza, Bringle adroitly paired the combination of a half note and a quarter note downward interval of a third at the start of the stanza with the word, “Surely,” accentuating the singers’ confidence that God will indeed “save” (st. 1), “uphold” (st. 2), “heal” (st. 3), “free” (st. 4), “refine” (st. 5), and “redeem” (st. 6).

God “alone” saves us, paying our penalty with his “precious blood.” (st. 1)
God “alone” upholds us, giving us “strength for all our needs.” (st. 2)
God “alone” heals us, making us “whole.” (st. 3)
God” alone” frees us, breaking the “bonds of guilt and sin.” (st. 4)
God “alone” refines us, giving us “grace for lives made new” (st. 5)
God “alone” redeems us, filling our dust-made vessels with His “holy breath.” (st. 6)

When this musical motif of a downward interval of a third appears again in the second half of the stanza, Bringle paired it with a list of present active participles—“reaching” (st. 1), “shielding” (st. 2), “soothing” (st. 3), “bracing” (st. 4), “forging” (st. 5), and “bursting” (st. 6), attesting to God’s continual active protection and work in our lives. The pairing of the verb with the half note in each participle allows singers to linger and recall God’s operative power. The downward interval portrays an assuring sense of God stretching down to reach us.

Finally, the gentle rise consisting of seven quarter notes in the last phrase conveys a gentle strengthening of the weakened heart, mind, and soul, with each stanza ending with a transformed state of wholeness—being lifted up (st. 1), pardoned and at peace (st. 2), consoled (st. 3), hopeful (st. 4), a “worthy” living “sacrifice” (st. 5), and finally, victory from “death” (st. 6), before returning to the refrain, recognizing that we, as “children of dust,” are nothing apart from God. So, “Mark us and make us your own, O merciful God!”

The tune, with its compound 6/4 meter, its ascending and descending stepwise motifs, and sudden upward leaps of a seventh (twice in the refrain, “ash-es” to “mer-ci-ful”), sixth (once in the refrain, “dust” to “we”), and fifth (twice in the stanza, “a-lone”), conveys an alternating sense of gentle waltz-like dialogue with the Trinitarian God in the stanzas, with cries of plea in the refrain, from a posture of contriteness, need, and trust.

According to hymnary.org, the hymn also appears in five other recent hymnals—Gather (3rd ed., 2011), Glory to God (2013), One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (2018), RitualSong (2nd ed., 2016), and Worship (4th ed.,2005). Interestingly all hymnals titled this hymn as “Merciful God” and paired it with Tony Alonso’s minor tonality INDIGO, except for Glory to God, which follows the original title and paired it with the original tune PHOENIX by Rowan in B-flat major.

The themes of despair, depression, dying, and death are common in Bringle’s works; she described herself as “a sometime sufferer of depression and despair” (Bringle, 1996, p. 330). Relatedly, her 1984 doctoral dissertation was later published as Despair: Sickness or Sin?: Hopelessness & Healing in the Christian Life (1990), and her widely-published hymn text on the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and aging, “When memory fades.”

Yet, Bringle does not write without hope. Her writings display an intimate understanding of the often-hidden struggles of individuals, as well as “a love of God and human beings—founded on a convictional hope for the healing of all of us who are subject to the isolating bondage of despair” (Bringle, 1990, p. 15). In Bringle’s article, “Final Breath: Death, Dying, and Song,” she wrote that the time for the “final breath” will come “for each of us, as for all people and all living things” (Bringle, 2019, p. 19). However, “our parting breath is not technically ‘final’ if we believe in the resurrection,” for “God will again ‘breathe life’ into all life forms” (Bringle, 2019, p. 23).

Although written for Ash Wednesday, “Sign us with ashes,” when reflected upon and sung regularly in a community, will both soothe and comfort those who are experiencing despair and help uphold and form the faith of the community that does not “deny nor shy away from suffering” (Bringle, 1996, p. 330) but embraces suffering as part of the Christian pilgrimage, singing their way from despair to hope, lamentation to trust, and from ashes to the resurrected life.


Mary Louise Bringle, “Final Breath: Death, Dying, and Song,” The Hymn 70, no. 4 (Autumn 2019), 17–24.

_____, Despair: Sickness or Sin?: Hopelessness & Healing in the Christian Life (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990).

_____, In Wind and Wonder: 75 Hymn Texts Mary Louise Bringle (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc, 2007).

_____, “Soul-Dye and Salt: Integrating Spiritual and Medical Understandings of Depression,” The Journal of Pastoral Care 50, no. 4 (Winter 1996), 329–339.

David Eicher, ed., Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).

Chelsea Stern, “Mary Louise Bringle,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mary-louise-bringle (accessed January 23, 2023).

Ee Hwee Wong serves as a pastoral team member at Wesley Methodist Church, Singapore, overseeing about ninety small groups with the zone leaders. She is a student in the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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