The Season of Lent 2021 began Feb. 17 with Ash Wednesday. This year, however, the rite that ends in a familiar smear of ashes across the forehead came with some pandemic-related changes.
Ash Wednesday is observed across a number of liturgical traditions. Catholic.org explains the day’s historical background:
Following the example of the Ninevites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told
“Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins — just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
The meaning of the day hasn’t changed, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, how the ashes are administered has been altered. WLOS news reports:
This year, the Vatican also changed the way people receive their ashes. Instead of a cross on the forehead, believers received a sprinkling of ashes on top of their head to limit person-to-person contact.
In other places, ministers are still placing the ashes on the foreheads of the faithful, but they may be taking the service outside, adding sanitation procedures, or even telling their parishioners to stay in their vehicles. WSBT tells of one such service:
Drive-throughs may make you think of burgers and fries — but not today. Pastor Caroline Satre at Christ the King Lutheran Church is offering ashes to go.
“Either Pastor Brad or myself will come out and mark them with the sign of the cross as we begin the season of Lent,” said Satre.
They’re washing their hands between each car, but if you want to be even safer, there’s another option.
“We recorded an Ash Wednesday worship service and then people can stop and pick up a container of ashes with some instructions so that they can mark themselves with the ashes as they participate in the Ash Wednesday worship online.”
And then, taking a wide-angled approach to social distancing, some churches are telling parishioners that attending the services remotely may be the safest option. ABC7 Chicago tells of how one local diocese is addressing the issue:
The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago is also offering options for its distribution of ashes.
According to letter posted on its website, the least risky and most recommended option is to provide ashes for pick up so that each person can self-impose the ashes in their own home.