Bishop’s Reflection on Ash Wednesday During a Time of a Pandemic
Aloha my dear Siblings in Christ Jesus,
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021. Though we may feel like 2020 and the first months of 2021 have been one long penitential season, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not canceled. Ash Wednesday is one of the two major “Fast Days” in the calendar of the Episcopal Church (the other being Good Friday) and is “observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial” (see The Book of Common Prayer, page 17).
In light of the pandemic, what does this mean for the imposition of ashes? Personally and practically, I do not think imposition of ashes with marking of a cross on the forehead by the Minister is prudent during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have asked that the clergy and congregations of the Diocese forgo the practice altogether this year.
As you will find on page 265 of The Book of Common Prayer, it is an entirely optional element of the current Ash Wednesday liturgy (“If ashes are imposed….”). The line to the left of the rubric marks it as an optional practice. From the time of the Reformation until the mid-Twentieth century, the vast majority of Anglicans/Episcopalians did not practice the imposition of ashes. The current Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979) is the first authorized Episcopal Prayer Book to include the practice (though it was certainly practiced in many Episcopal churches during the years before the current Prayer Book was authorized). Even with no ashes in the liturgy, however, the day was still historically designated as “The First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday” in Anglican/Episcopal Prayer Books for centuries. While it is for many a helpful pious act, the imposition of ashes is not a sacramental act and is certainly not essential to the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. This year, I recommend just not having ashes at all. Please understand, this is a recommendation and not a directive.
My directive is to not impose ashes directly on the forehead making a cross. Then what else might be done? Another option might be for the person administering the ashes to sprinkle the ashes over the faithful. Since ordination to the priesthood, I have practiced this form of administration of the ashes for myself and offered it to God’s people as an option. I have also annually reminded people that receiving the ashes is entirely optional and a personal choice.
I have done so for three reasons: (1) Sprinkling is the oldest historic method of administering ashes on God’s people, (2) It better reflects the action and theology of Baptism, and (3) It seems to fit better with the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday (see Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). Regarding the third reason, I have also given God’s people towelettes to clean the ashes off immediately after the liturgy should they wish. Personally, I would like to see the sprinkling of ashes become the normative practice in the Church every year. It could only happen with extensive teaching. I also realize that the ash cross on the forehead is a valued practice for many Episcopalians.
In 2021, however, I still think it best to limit physical contact. I expect congregations to forgo imposition of ashes with the Minister touching the faithful’s forehead making the sign of the cross. I recommend that the “ash” element of the liturgy not be used at all this year. If ashes are imposed, however, I expect that there be no physical contact between the Minister distributing the ashes and the faithful (perhaps by sprinkling or some other means). One might consider the blessing of the ashes without the follow-up personal contact required for imposition. Perhaps the ashes could then be cast into the wind (that could be effective for an outdoor liturgy) or solemnly spread onto the ground. There may be other creative ways to have ashes as part of the liturgy without the Minister touching the faithful. Other images might be shared and practices engaged as we consider again the penitential nature of the Lent and live into the reality of the pandemic.
Each of us individually will need to decide how best to live into this season of Lent with special acts of discipline and self-denial. My Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral will not include ashes in 2021. If you are in church for Ash Wednesday, you may faithfully decide not to go forward for the sprinkling of ashes even if it is offered. Likewise, one may decide with equal faithfulness to do so. If no ashes are offered or available, please engage the words of penitence, and reflect deeply on the Scripture lessons and the prayers in the liturgy (in-person or online). Be open to God in this unusual moment. It is a time to remember our humanity as the pandemic has repeatedly reminded us over the past year, and to find God in our finitude and broken reality.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.