Ash Wednesday Banner
Dear Companions in Christ, 

On February 17th we will observe Ash Wednesday, thus beginning our preparations for Holy Week with the Lenten season of penitence and fasting. As you know, the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful has long been the custom of the day. For many this custom has become an important part of their Lenten piety, a tactile and visible way to ritually and publicly acknowledge their mortality and penitence, and to mark the beginning of this holy season.

As with so many other things, the safety concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic necessarily complicates our liturgical practices and customs. All of us have been asking how best to adapt the Ash Wednesday liturgy so that our observation is on the one hand safe and hygienic and on the other hand retains the ritual significance it holds for many of our people.

We have taken instruction and suggestion from a short paper by the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander called, “A Note on Ash Wednesday and the Imposition of Ashes in a Time of Pandemic.” Alexander is Professor of Liturgy and Quintard Professor at Sewanee and Bishop emeritus of Atlanta.

Bishop Alexander makes two key observations about Ash Wednesday that we found instructive.
  1. The imposition of ashes is optional (BCP 295, “If ashes are to be imposed...”). Bishop Alexander points out that, though the imposition of ashes has been in practice for a long time, it has not always been in practice.
  2. Ashes were first distributed to the faithful by sprinkling them on the top of the head. The imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead is a newer version of an older ritual.

Based on these observations, we offer the following recommendations for Ash Wednesday liturgies and rituals:

Recommendation 1: Online/Virtual worship using Personal Form
  • The service begins on page 264 as usual
  • When it comes to the time when the imposition of ashes would happen, then the presider allows for significant space during which each worshipper both:
- Reflects upon their mortality and commits to a penitential practice for Lent
- Makes some physical embodied sign/symbol of their acknowledgement of their mortality and commitment to penitence.
- They might share the form of the commitment online during the space either verbally or in the zoom chat function. Of course this would require though and preparation before the service by each worshipper.
  • Worship continues with the reading/singing of Psalm 51, BCP 266

Recommendation 2: Offering Ashes as its own ritual (“Ashes to go”) with touchless
sprinkling of ashes
  • We strongly recommend that this ritual would take place out of doors, to minimize the risk of spreading the virus in an indoor space, and the use of gloves
  • The words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” can be said from a distance of 6-feet before sprinkling
  • Opportunity to use a handout - perhaps the Ash Wednesday litany - and/or prayer cards for people to use at home during Lent
  • Dry, finely ground ashes would be sprinkled on the head of the penitent.

We hope these recommendations are helpful as you plan your parish’s observance of a Holy Lent. We are blessed to share in ministry with all of you in these challenging times.

Faithfully,

The Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas
Bishop Diocesan, Episcopal Church in Connecticut

The Rt. Rev. Laura J. Ahrens
Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Church in Connecticut

The Rev. Stephanie Johnson
Co-chair, ECCT Liturgical Commission 

The Rev. Tuesday Rupp
Co-chair, ECCT Liturgical Commission