“If I don’t practice today, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my significant other knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, everybody knows it.”
I ran across this quote, or a version of it, from an article about professional musicians the other day, and I can relate from my own experience in the field. One friend said he only practiced every third day, but I don’t think he’s a regular performer right now.
When I was preparing a new program, one of the best parts was deciding what to play. It was like setting up a dinner for friends: you chose which tasty things you were going to put on the menu, and calculate how you could present them for best effect. Each piece was a work of love, and moving from fast to slow, loud to soft, meditative to energetic, and figuring out how you’d end everything with a bang was exciting stuff. When the decisions were made, it was great to sit back and imagine how great it was going to be.
Then came time to start working on it. I’d have to analyze the music, to see exactly what was going on at every moment, get a feel for the composer’s intent. There were exercises to warm up, writing down fingering for the notes, getting the music under my fingers and feet. I had to be alert for any problems, spend time working through mistakes until the memory of them was gone, because if you come up to a passage you have trouble learning and think “Gosh, I had trouble with this,” then gosh, you’d probably have trouble again, or just before or just after. The memorization, internalizing everything so it sounded natural, effortless, because if you’re struggling with a piece of music the audience is going to hear the struggle and be distracted by it.
In the end, the great day would arrive, the day to let everything go and just play. You trusted your prep work was enough, even though you wished you had another week, and offered it to your audience. And by the grace of God, music would happen.
Jesus gives us the music of our lives, and it’s beautiful to contemplate: living at peace with our neighbors, feeling happy and fulfilled with our lives, having the best destination possible for our lives. We study the life Jesus offers us, talk about it, learn how to do it better. Lent gives us a chance to practice more intensely, look at ourselves more closely, see what gets in the way of being what God made us to be. Lenten discipline is about perfecting our technique, about practicing what we believe in a way it becomes natural, effortless, normal. We discipline ourselves to get into shape, so we can let those distractions that hinder us pass us by, so we can keep doing every day what He wants us to do. Sure, we miss days and we notice it. If we try to take a day off charity, it will affect us, and if we take several days off others will notice it. But we keep trying, keep working, knowing that in spite of our weaknesses now, we can overcome them to make better music.
We take the ashes today as a sign of commitment. We commit ourselves to being what God made us to be, who Christ wants us to be, to the best person we can be. Our Lenten practice isn’t a self-imposed punishment: we don’t win our way back into God’s favor by showing him how tough we can be, or what earthly delight we can give up. Lent isn’t a six week journey through masochism, or a self-imposed depression where we forget the Hope that sets us free. Christ’s death and resurrection makes all this possible, gives us the song to sing with our lives. God makes this chance to change our lives possible, and we owe Him gratitude and praise as we travel this time. Our acceptance of Ashes is a public sign of our commitment to be better singers, to make the music with our lives God intends us to make.