COVID Restrictions and a Liturgical Note for
Ash Wednesday
Dear Clergy,

Today, Governor Newsom lifted the stay-at-home order that affected the southern California region. As our region remains in the state’s “purple tier” classification, I do not anticipate that this will allow us to resume indoor worship. “Purple tier” areas are still required to hold worship only outdoors or online, by government rules. (As in the past, I am treating Yuma as similar to neighboring Imperial County.)

Note that I recently tightened restrictions on live-streaming or pre-recording worship from inside a church. Those tightened restrictions apply through Feb. 16. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, if conditions do not get worse, you may have up to 8 people present in a church for online worship, meeting masking and distancing requirements. I will still encourage recording music separately if singing is included, but if this is technologically difficult for you, you may record an entire service together. Please keep the time a group spends together indoors to 45 minutes or less, and ensure that after a group is present together, the space is held empty for at least 30 minutes before another group enters. Please note, however, that if the COVID situation worsens, we may need to tighten the restrictions again. I ask your patience with the evolving situation and guidelines.

Ash Wednesday

Several of you have asked about liturgical practices for Ash Wednesday in this season of pandemic, and it has come up as a question in two of our clergy calls. In case you were not able to join us for those clergy calls, I will summarize my responses to those questions here.

First, it is clear that it will not be safe during this time of pandemic for a priest (or other person) to impose ashes on the foreheads of unrelated people. Approaching closely enough to touch a person and impose ashes is too risky in this era when more contagious variants of the virus are spreading.

Therefore, I offer you several options for Ash Wednesday observances.

The first option is to omit the imposition of ashes altogether. Neither ashes nor Eucharist are required as part of the Ash Wednesday rite. The penitential portions of the rite are at the heart of the beginning of our Lenten observance, and can easily be experienced in an online or safe outdoor liturgy.

The second option is to prepare individual containers of ashes for people to self-impose. These may be made available in the church and blessed in advance for people to pick up (or may be delivered to their homes), and worshipers can then impose ashes on their own or family members’ heads while participating in an online liturgy. Or, instructions may be provided to members so they can prepare their own ashes at home.

The third option applies if an outdoor service is offered. Containers of ashes may be made available as people arrive, and they can hold them aloft at the appropriate moment to be blessed, and then impose them on their own or family members’ foreheads. Note that the treatment of ashes is not the same as for the bread and wine of the Eucharist, because the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament of the church, but a symbol and reminder of our mortality.

The fourth option is suggested by a paper written by The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, retired bishop of Atlanta and liturgist. He notes that the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross did not come into practice until the 11th century; in fact, in the earliest church ashes were not used on the first day of Lent at all. For many centuries after that, it was the custom to sprinkle ashes over the gathered worshipers, while saying the words that remind us of our mortality, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The sprinkling provides a powerful link to the sprinkling of dirt over our mortal remains at our burial. Bishop Alexander notes:
Saint Benedict admonished his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.” Although the realities of death are never far from us at any time, in this season of pandemic, death is acutely before our eyes far in excess of anything most of us have ever known. Speaking to that and ritualizing it with a subtle, but powerful shift in the manner in which the ashes are administered has the potential of being a rich ritual exchange with significant pastoral connotations. And, calling attention to this slight adjustment, deeply rooted in the tradition, may be its own gift to us and our people in this difficult time.
Therefore, if you are going to hold outdoor worship for Ash Wednesday, you may choose to sprinkle the ashes over the worshipers, in a manner similar to asperging them with water, rather than impose them individually. Bishop Alexander notes that for sprinkling, you should omit water or oil from the ashes, as you will want them to be dry.

As always, I am grateful for your leadership during this time of danger in our country. I pray in thanksgiving for you as you bear the light of Christ to your congregations and the wider community.
In Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Susan Brown Snook
The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego
2083 Sunset Cliffs Blvd., San Diego, CA 92107