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Churches modifying Ash Wednesday practices over Covid

The pandemic is complicating plans to mark Ash Wednesday, which will start the Lenten season on Wednesday, February 17.

The solemn day — officially known as the Day of Ashes — is a day of repentance, when Christians around the world confess their sins and profess their devotion to God. Most commonly associated with the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is also practiced by many protestant denominations including Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and even some Baptist churches – though in slightly different ways.

Clergy often smear ashes, usually those left after burning palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations, onto congregants’ foreheads, often in the shape of a cross. The ceremony is meant to show that a person belongs to Jesus Christ, and it also represents a person’s grief and mourning for their sins — the same sins that Jesus Christ gave his life for when he died on the cross.

The practice is getting a covid make-over this year. Health officials contend this practice presents a problem in efforts to fight COVID-19. They have advised people to avoid touching their faces or coming in close proximity to others. Some churches haven’t met since the pandemic first upended life during the last Lenten season

An ecumenical group of clergy, theologians, liturgical scholars and public health experts recently released guidelines for safely observing Ash Wednesday, recommending no indoor meetings, and lots of hand sanitizer.

“The pandemic has to be paid attention to,” said the Rev. Taylor W. Burton Edwards, pastor of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Warner Robins, Ga.

Drive-through ashes have been gaining popularity in recent years for busy Christians unable to attend weekday Ash Wednesday services. The Rev. Stacy Gahlman-Schroeder of Norway Grove Memorial Lutheran Church in DeForest, Wis., plans to stand in the church parking lot throughout the day, dipping disposable Q-tips into the ashes rather than her finger, or offering a blessing, if it’s preferred. As cold as that sounds, Gahlman-Schroeder is looking forward to it. “I’m selfish on this,” she said. “I really do want to see the faces again. It’s been a long year.”

Other recommendations from the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship and Sacraments include distributing ashes to congregants for their personal use. Scripture, the document points out, describes people sprinkling themselves with ashes.

Ash Wednesday always occurs six and a half weeks before Easter.  Because it is dependent on Easter, Ash Wednesday falls on a different day each year. The earliest it can occur is Feb. 4 and the latest is March 10. In 2020 it fell on Feb. 26. Because Easter will be celebrated on Sunday, April 4, this year, Ash Wednesday is on Feb. 17.

One pastor told Religion News Service that “Part of being a follower of Jesus is we can’t do it on our own, and it’s always about being part of a community. To be a community to go through this together has just been really difficult.”

–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice