Ash Wednesday: Rituals Modified for Coronavirus

Make-your-own ashes, drive-by services, temporary tattoos and “Lent Boxes” dominate this year’s Lenten season celebrations.

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Celebrating Ash Wednesday during the Pandemic

Ash Wednesday is going to look a lot different this year.

Typically, many Christians gather on this day to mark the start of Lent, the six-week period of repentance and reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. Traditionally, Roman Catholics, as well as some mainline Protestant denominations, dispense ashes—a symbol of mortality—most often by drawing a cross on people’s forehead.

But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced clergy around the world to get creative as they alter their worship traditions to keep people safe. For almost a year now, it’s become commonplace to see churches around the world hold services outside or online via Facebook, Zoom or other live-streaming platforms.

This Ash Wednesday, churches are offering a variety of options from mailing ashes home to creating pick-up “Lent Kits” to drive-by ash services—and some are even encouraging congregants to make their own ashes at home.  

“People are doing a lot of creative things to be able to celebrate Ash Wednesday while also maintaining social distance,” said Dr. Marcia McFee, a California-based consultant who runs Worship Design Studio which provides resources to churches including continuing education materials and scripted worship series. “I’ve seen churches order temporary tattoos for their congregants; these are particularly popular because it gives people a way to actually put that cross on their skin.”

In January, the Vatican gave guidance for how Roman Catholics around the world can limit contact while still marking Ash Wednesday, which although not an official Holy Day of Obligation, is always a popular day in church.

In the U.S., the normal practice of drawing ash crosses on people’s forehead will be replaced by having priests sprinkle ashes on top of people’s heads. In addition, the prayer that is usually said to individuals as they receive their ashes most often “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"—will not be said this year. Instead, the priests are being asked to say a single prayer over the entire congregation. 

The practice of sprinkling ashes on people’s heads is already customary in many countries including Italy and Poland.

Usually ashes are made from old palm leaves that were used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. But the Archdiocese of Dublin has indicated that it is okay to make and use ashes from different sources this year. In addition to using last year’s palm branch it is okay to take ashes from an open fire grate in the home or even to use clay from their garden.

Protestant churches are also getting creative. Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth Texas is offering congregants a “Drive thru Imposition of Ashes” at three different times through the day. To limit physical contact, clergy will impose ashes using cotton swabs. The Episcopal Diocese of New York has decided to forgo ashes this year, but many churches will hold some form of service. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine—the seat of the Diocese—will hold a brief service on the cathedral’s grand front steps at noon.

The Lent Kits sent out by the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota, included little containers with purple lids filled with ashes and a written suggestion: “Ashes can be very messy. You may wish to add some oil to the ashes to help them stick to our forehead/hand.”

Dr. McFee said she is encouraging people to take dirt from their garden and rub it around in the palm of their hand with a little water to create ashes.

“From dust we came and to dust we shall return,” she said. “The parameters set by social distancing are forcing us to be more creative. I think what is happening is that we dig deeper into the theology of it when we have to be creative. We get closer to the real meaning.”

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