History of Hymns: "Dust and Ashes"
“Dust and Ashes”
Worship and Song, No. 3098
Dust and ashes touch our face,
mark our failure and our falling.
Holy Spirit, come,
walk with us tomorrow,
take us as disciples,
washed and wakened by your calling.
Take us by the hand and lead us,
lead us through the desert sands,
bring us living water,
Holy Spirit, come. *
If one were asked to describe Brian Wren to a complete stranger, what would be the choice of words? Some might choose hymn writer, while others might propose that he is a musical theologian. I would suggest that he is a scriptural architect.
Dr. Wren (b. 1936) uses his craft to construct hymns based on Scripture with the congregational choir in mind. He assembles words and music in such a way as to form a theological framework that addresses the issues of our day. Often his constructions are complex in nature, some appearing impossible or controversial at inception. But carefully he approaches the subject at hand and skillfully works his way through the project.
Dr. Wren’s hymns address a wide spectrum of subjects. Feminism, gender-neutral texts, social injustices, and liberation theology are just a few of the areas covered in his hymns. He constructs his hymns for the universal church and its congregations of today. In addition, he revitalizes old hymns to update their meanings to current implications.
Who is Brian Wren? He is an English born, internationally recognized hymn poet. He was ordained in England’s United Reformed Church, holds the distinction of Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Ga., and has been honored as a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada, in addition to possessing a lengthy list of publications and professional accomplishments.
Dr. Wren is married to Susan Heafield, a United Methodist minister, who collaborates with him in composing congregational song. They share a ministry in providing creative worship resources that may be found at www.praisepartnersworship.com.
His hymn “Dust and Ashes” provides a theological context for observances of Ash Wednesday. It contains a thematic construct that conveys that the Holy Spirit is with us perpetually—not just at Pentecost.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. By receiving the application of ashes on one’s forehead, Christians symbolize their inner repentance. During the service the pastor applies ashes in the shape of a cross and recites Genesis 3:19, “From dust you are and dust you shall return.” This reminds each of us that we are mortal and sinful, and our repentance is necessary for everlasting life with Christ. God does not force the repentance of Ash Wednesday upon us; it is of our own free choice to participate or not.
“Dust and Ashes” guides us theologically and emotionally from the “failure,” “oppression” and “depression” of Lent toward the hope found in the “path of resurrection.” The first stanza notes our human condition as the ashes “mark our failure and our falling.” However, the poet does not leave us in this state as he reminds us of our renewal through our baptismal vows: “washed and wakened by your calling.”
The second stanza explores the concept of dirt and “soil” as symbolic of the “greed of market, pride of nation.” We are a part of larger systems that foster “oppression.” The final stanza addresses the “wasteland of depression.” We move from the “gloom and grieving” of the Lenten season to “paths of resurrection.”
As our society and culture change, so does the need to refresh our congregational song. “Dust and Ashes” is a welcome addition to the hymns available for Ash Wednesday.