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Tips for Ash Wednesday during COVID-19

By Cynthia Wilson, Derek Weber, and Diana Sanchez-Bushong

Thumb lent2021 ash wednesday

Ash Wednesday, February 17 this year, is the beginning of the Lent-Easter-Pentecost-cycle of the Christian year. Each year, Christians worldwide attend church services centered on the liturgical act known as the imposition of ashes. The marking of ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of believers as a reminder of mortality and belonging is how Christians begin the forty-day journey of Lent leading to Easter and ultimately the Day of Pentecost. For some churches, this time of Lent begins on the eve of Ash Wednesday, known as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, where Christians party for one last day and clean out the pantry as fasting (one of the spiritual disciplines during Lent) begins on Ash Wednesday.

However, as COVID-19 cases continue to soar, churches are left with the task of re-envisioning these liturgical markers while keeping faithful to their importance and meaning in the community of faith. Below are some suggested considerations for your preparations for Ash Wednesday. We begin by sharing some scenarios and then offering some practical ideas for imposing the ashes safely. At the end are links for additional articles and information. We encourage you to take this information and work with your own worship team to contextualize it for your community of faith.

Scenario 1: Completely virtual

Although it might be possible to email or even snail mail items to be used in an at-home ritual of Ash Wednesday; the better route might be to shift the emphasis from the mark to the confession, from the ashes to the repentance. Consider sending a prayer—perhaps Psalm 51 or some other common prayer to be shared by all in their different places—to the whole scattered church. Focus on the prayer and not, this time, on the ritual act.

Scenario 2: Able to meet outside or in a drive-through format

If there is a possibility of gathering outside or in a drive-through format, then prepare two-inch square pieces of burlap with ashes in the sign of the cross to hand out to each person. Make sure that in the preparation of the squares, all precautions are maintained (masked and gloved in as sterile an environment as possible). The ash-marked square could then become the symbol of the mark usually borne by each person on this date. But the square could last longer and become a symbol for the whole Lenten season. Over time, the ashes will fade from the square and the cloth will remain, a symbol of renewal and forgiveness.

Scenario 3: Able to meet in person, but with distancing rules in place

In this scenario, the burlap squares could still be used, but each person comes singly or as a family unit to the altar rail and kneels to receive the square off a tray on a stand or held by a masked and gloved attendant.

The option of individually bagged small samples of ash distributed for self-application is also a possibility, but it seems to use a lot of ash and is difficult to bag and distribute easily under the required protocols. Self-application of the ash from a common container would have too many hands touching the same substance.

Ideas and Options for Imposition of Ashes and liturgical acts for Ash Wednesday

Drive-Through, Walk-Through, At-Home Kits for Quarantined, Homebound and Disabled People

1. Lenten Calendar

Create a calendar that offers daily opportunities for Scripture, prayer, and activities for our Lenten journey. Click here to download.

2. Art

May be created to represent the obstacles that block your relationship with Christ. Place your thumb in the ashes and press your thumb onto a piece of paper in the shape of a cross. You may write those things that block your relationship over the ashes or write them first and then mark them with the ashes in the shape of a cross.

3. Ashes

Made available to receive as a sign of repentance and to help you develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.

4. Communion

Made available to all as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and love for us. Instructions for preparing them may be included in the kit or items may be included as well depending on how you will distribute the kits.

Elements for Drive-Through:

  • Offer materials for at-home worship (if not mailed); create a QR code (a barcode that is a machine-readable optical label that contains information about the item to which it is attached) to link to a Lenten calendar you create for your church with a link to a recording or DVD of an Ash Wednesday service
  • Advertise to the community that there will be one or two opportunities for Walk-Through or Drive-Through Communion and Imposition of Ashes offered for anyone in the community wishing to participate in one or both rituals.
  • Marketing possibilities - Social media posts, yard signs, banners, and so on.

Materials Needed:

Important Notes:

  • Masks should be made available and worn by all participants.
  • Those offering the ashes should wear rubber gloves and use finger cots or long cotton swabs (finger cots or cotton swabs should be disposed after each individual use.)
  • Apply ashes to the backs of people’s hands instead of to their foreheads as a way of lessening contact with individuals and avoiding contact with people’s faces.
  • Lenten Calendar and art elements are listed on the QR code (A barcode that is a machine-readable optical label that contains information about the item to which it is attached) for drive-in, walk-through service. Make these options available to homebound people.

Additional resources for Ash Wednesday

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