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Creative Ideas for a COVID-19 Ash Wednesday

The beginning of Lent 2021 is mere weeks away, raising questions about how to approach Ash Wednesday during a pandemic.

What will the day look like? Will churches be open? Will there be the imposition of ashes? Will the imposition of ashes be safe? Will there be restrictions? Will the vaccine be available in time?

On-line services are planned, and creative suggestions about ashes have surfaced, many involving Ziploc bags, plastic containers, a long stick, and lots of gloves.  Some ideas include leaving ashes for people in church; sending packets of ashes home; having packets available for congregants to pick up; and forgoing ashes completely.

“For years I have been advocating the idea of people signing themselves with ashes to indicate their willing commitment to enter into the disciplines of Lent, rather than having that ‘imposed,’” said the Rev. Don Caron, St. David’s, Cranbury, New Jersey. “We are considering making available little packets of ashes that can be distributed along with a prayer card with an appropriate statement of the intention for the season. I am also considering distributing a sticker in the form of an ash cross that can be put in a prominent place, such as a mirror or computer screen.”

“We won’t be doing Ashes to Go out in community this year,” said Senior Warden Karen Sanchez of Holy Cross, Carlsbad, California. “However, we will livestream our service and distribute ashes in Ziploc bags ahead of time to the congregation, for self and family imposition during the liturgy.”

The Minnesota winter cold will not stop St. Clement’s in St. Paul. “We will be having brief outdoor (freezing cold) services with cantors and Ashes to Go in small lip balm containers (pre-filled) for people to take and administer to themselves and those in their household,” the Rev. Joy Caires reported. “So, no one will be coming close enough for imposition of ashes by anyone not in their bubble.”

“I don’t see how Ashes to Go is not also a high-risk scenario,” said the Rev. Josh Hosler, Good Shepherd, Federal Way, Washington. “We’re working on a plan to distribute ashes in little Ziploc bags in the mail for the purpose of self- and family-imposition during our Zoom liturgy.”

The Rev. Canon Holly Herring, Canon Precentor, Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, is looking at all angles. “While we have not made our decision about what we will do, there are a couple of things that stand out for me from the BCP, within the context of imposing or not,” she said. “Not Imposing: ‘If ashes are to be imposed, the Celebrant says the following prayer…’ What about our traditions must we engage, may we engage, should we engage — how do we grieve these changes, embrace these changes, grow from these changes? Imposing: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ What does that look like when you really embrace that (statistically) it will most likely happen before we gather for ashes again in 2022 — I’ll bury one of them, or they will bury me… and certainly that will happen to all of us eventually. How do we grieve that reality, embrace that reality, grow from that reality?”

Some are recognizing the loss that will be felt in 2021.

“Maybe a year off from ashes isn’t a bad thing,” noted the Rev. Tim Schenk, St. John The Evangelist, Hingham, Massachusetts. “At worst, they’ve become something of an idol in recent years, a mere liturgical party favor. This may be an opportunity to recapture the reason for Ash Wednesday, a time to truly rend our hearts as we enter into Lent.”

“I know for me and many clergy, Ash Wednesday is one of my spiritually/pastorally moving services of the year,” said the Rev. Gillian R. Barr, Calvary, Stonington, Connecticut. “But in a year when we’ve already forgone Holy Week, Easter, and the whole Christmas cycle, it’s just another loss.”

“I’ve done Ashes to Go at our local train station for years. There have been years it’s been almost unbearably cold, years it’s been rainy, and years when I’ve wondered why I bothered with my coat, but it’s always, always been an uplifting experience,”  said Patricia Arlin Bradley, Holy Trinity, Hillsdale, and Chief Business Officer at St. Peter’s in Morristown, New Jersey. https://www.stpetersmorristown.org/  “I will miss it this year. I’ll also miss our parish’s traditional Ash Wednesday pizza party. Yes, we order pizzas for after our 7 PM service, because many of us come straight from work. Feed the soul, nourish the body, bring the kids. A little unorthodox, but we love it. Next year, God willing.”

And what about the traditional and much-loved Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner?

“Sadly, I do not see how any of those traditions – the pancake supper, Ashes to Go, or even the imposition of ashes, can happen this year,” said the Rev. Diana Wilcox, Christ Church in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge, New Jersey.

Caron agreed.  “Ash Wednesday is important, but pancakes, while traditional and a great social occasion, are not.”


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