Rector's Note: Ashes In the Pandemic
One of the hardest things about the pandemic is that we are never simply "doing" anything. Instead, we are always figuring out how to act while distanced, masked, and with other appropriate precautions. Most recently, the question the All Saints staff and I have been asking is how we perform the imposition of ashes for our Ash Wednesday Pilgrimage services. Our new bishop has given parishes the freedom to discern what’s best in their context, meaning we have both the freedom and responsibility to decide.
In exploring a number of options, we discovered that the first historical records of the observance of Lent did not even involve ashes. It wasn’t until the tenth century, in Germany, that there is a written account of ashes being used. In this case, it says that ashes were sprinkled on the heads of the penitent, or those whose “notorious sins” had estranged them from the community. Similarly, in England in the eleventh century, there’s evidence that ashes were sprinkled on people’s heads, though in this case it was done for all worshippers.
In both of these early accounts, the ashes were administered while the famous lines from Genesis 3 were read: “You are dust and to dust you shall return." This reading, and the sprinkling of ash reminiscent of the dirt sprinkled over the grave at burial, keeps human mortality at the forefront of the rite. In this last year, where we have all been faced with human mortality on a daily basis, having a ritual that names this reality and helps us face it with God and in community will surely minister to us in a new way.
So for Ash Wednesday 2021, we are going to go back to the earlier form of the ritual. In our Pilgrimage services, a priest will stand on the steps to the Chancel and worshippers may come forward for a very small bit of ash sprinkled on their heads. This is also what the Vatican is guiding their congregations in, so we have historical precedent as well as commonality with our Roman Catholic siblings. This will be a safer option during COVID as it prevents hand to face touching and adds some distance so that people are not face to face.
For those who are participating in our online service, you may want to prepare ashes to use during the rite. If you have your palm cross from last year, it can be burned and used as ashes, which is what our and many churches do. You might also try using ash from a candle wick, a burnt piece of paper, or wine cork, all of which I’ve read will work. Even local dust from nature may be used and has been suggested by an Episcopal bishop. Additionally, we can make ash available to pick up before the service. Please email me to arrange a time.
However you observe Ash Wednesday and mark the beginning of Lent, know that what matters most is that God loves you and that anything that draws you into that love will be a good thing. It is this love that is ultimately where we come from and where we return.
Influential Source: Imposition of Ashes in a Time of Pandemic