By Neva Rae Fox
Ash Wednesday 2022 marks another annual observance amid the COVID pandemic. While 2022 will mirror 2021 in numerous aspects — regional restrictions, mask requirements, no or limited in-person gatherings — this year many seek a more reflective Ash Wednesday.
The pandemic isn’t the only social concern affecting everyday lives. Environmental issues, shootings, and civil unrest have added to a general sense of unease. The penitential and deeply reverent readings for Ash Wednesday resonate on many levels with an acute awareness of the day’s solemnity.
“We are living in a tension between naming realities that separate us from God and neighbors, and the hope of new life with Christ,” said the Rev. Blair Pogue, canon for vitality and innovation for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. “We’re not glossing over pain. God promises us a future of reconciliation. Jesus made that possible. It’s not easy.”
“It just might be that this Ash Wednesday, our ashes make it clear that our frail existence and our fragile environment are linked,” said the Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare, rector of Holy Comforter in Broomfield, Colorado.
In leading one of the parishes near the devastating Marshall Fires in Boulder County, “I am focused less this year on the mechanics of ash distribution and more on the pastoral duty to speak of ashes when many in the community have nothing but ashes to remember with,” Shakespeare added. “The tidy application of the remnants of last year’s palm fronds with the solemn call for repentance doesn’t seem sufficient to hold the sorrow of the lived reality of homes consumed in flames.”
This Ash Wednesday, the Episcopal Church in Minnesota is reminded of George Floyd’s death and its aftermath.
“We are where George Floyd was killed,” Pogue said. “It is deeply connected as we see the vision of God and the realities of today. People are so tired, and we are encouraging colleagues to offer more contemplative worship.”
To many, Pogue said, “Lent means downer. But we need to look inside with a flashlight. We have found that people are willing to engage if there is hope involved.”
While returning to pre-COVID plans, the members of St. Matthew’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, are “investing our time and energy into just being together for the prayer book Ash Wednesday service, which is critical to what our community needs for healing right now,” said the Rev. Maggie Nancarrow.
“The worship committee made a conscious decision that, this year, we do not need extra reminders of our mortality,” said the Rev. Jason Miller, priest-in-charge of St. Michael and All Angels in Buffalo, New York. “I will be posting to our YouTube a meditation with the Invitation to a Holy Lent, followed by a version of Psalm 51. The congregation has become familiar with online options for services that would have been less well-attended.”
Creativity was the key for observing Ash Wednesday in 2021. Lessons learned still resonate: innovative practices of distributing bags containing ashes; printed prayers; pancake recipes and Mardi Gras beads (with a nod to Shrove Tuesday); standing outside church for quick prayers with passersby; a shift to online services.
“For now, we are continuing to exercise all the creativity and flexibility possible when it comes to being church,” said Kym Lucas, Bishop of Colorado. “Yes, it is exhausting, and we are so much more adaptable than we previously thought. This creativity allowed us to create sacred spaces and revision worship that we might not have considered before.”
“Last year, I remember much talk of Q-Tips, oil, gloves, abstaining, or simply not offering ashes,” said the Very Rev. Dr. Caroline Carson, rector of Holy Innocents in Beach Haven, New Jersey. “This year, if allowed, I plan on offering a normal service with the imposition of ashes for anyone who’d like to receive them. I won’t glove my hand but will use sanitizer before and after and may even dip/wipe it between each person. Not sure yet, though.”
One victim of the pandemic struggling to survive is Ashes to Go.
Ellen Hildebrand Cole, parish life and worship coordinator at The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reported that “since we are having in-person, we are not planning Ashes to Go this year, but like with everything COVID … that may change.”
Undaunted, Trinity on the Hill in Los Alamos, New Mexico, plans “Ashes to Go at Starbucks for an hour,” said the Rev. Raymond Raney, interim rector.
Despite pandemic restrictions and pressing social issues, confidence remains high for a solemn Ash Wednesday reflection.
“It is my hope that COVID has taught us how important it is that we go forth into the world,” Bishop Lucas said. “In our new Church landscape, we cannot expect that people will come to us. The Church is at its best when we recognize that we don’t ‘go to church,’ but instead that we are Church. And that is true whether we are in a physical building or not.”