The Ash Wednesday ritual of a mark on the forehead in the shape of a cross — the day’s reminder of humanity’s mortal state and start of Lent — will be altered on Feb. 17 because of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
The Most Rev. William Byrne, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, said ashes will be “lightly sprinkled” over the heads of those attending in-person services, as advised by the Vatican, rather than foreheads marked with the sign of the cross.
The words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” will be recited once at the start of the ritual.
“Following the guidance provided by the Congregation of Divine Worship, I have asked parishes to adopt these directives as we continue to confront the pandemic,” Byrne said.
“This year the priest will bless the ashes and then recite the prayer just once for all in the congregation. Then, following social distancing guidelines and the wearing of masks, those who wish to receive ashes will come forward to the priest or deacon — keeping their masks on — and the ashes will be lightly sprinkled over their head in silence.”
He acknowledged some Catholics might be “disappointed” that their forehead will be sprinkled with ash rather than marked with a sign that for many symbolizes their faith.
“It should be noted this is the method used in many churches in Europe,” Byrne said. “Nonetheless I know some will be disappointed not to have the Cross marked on their foreheads as a public sign of our faith. But we should be always recognized as followers of Jesus Christ by the way we live our lives in joy and love of the Lord giving public witness to our faith in the way we live out our daily lives.”
He added, “This change is yet another temporary sacrifice we must endure as we deal with the ongoing pandemic and the need to provide worship in a safe environment.”
The Very Rev. Tom Callard, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, will forego his traditional walk to downtown Springfield and marking the foreheads of those interested.
“This year, because of COVID, we are not doing any kind of one-on-one distribution of ashes.” Callard said. “We figure the numbers are still high and we don’t want to risk close behaviors like that. So, we are giving people little plastic containers with ash to distribute at home while they are watching our livestream.”
He said that the distribution will be done for an hour, starting at 1:30 p.m., on Sunday, Feb. 14, in the cathedral’s driveway at 35 Chestnut St., and that then people could remotely watch Ash Wednesday services from the cathedral Feb. 17 at 7:30 a.m. and noon as well as at 5 p.m., with Bishop Douglas Fisher, and at 7 p.m. one in Spanish.
Callard said his cathedral is currently holding only remote services and that this common form of worship during the pandemic has been a challenge for both worshipers and clergy, but also one that has provided a different slant on what it means to gather as a faith community.
“I think the growth in faith that has come from this time of COVID has been for people to realize that their lives are sacred, and not just their church, or their pew where they sit every week, or something that is done by the priest,” Callard said.
“Faith has shifted away from the centralized place of ‘church” so people have begun to realize that we are all the church, that the church is the people and not the building, and that they can discover the divine in their living room, sitting next to their loved ones, in front of a computer, or on their phone walking down the street.”
He added, “These new connections are redefining what church is and what is possible for gathering together and being united. And, of course, people have been rediscovering the divine in nature, in walks, in the sky, in these things we have access to every day.”
Callard said he felt that “most people are willing to worship remotely because it gives them an experience of church which is better than no experience of church.”
“People are making the best of it, because they really do want to be part of the faith community that has sustained them and because they do find the presence of God there,” Callard said.
“I don’t think anyone prefers remote worship to being together in person. The big benefit of remote worship is that we are regularly joined by people who otherwise could not be with us because they are home-bound and cannot regularly get out, or because they are far away. Every week we have people joining us from places like Boston and the Dominican Republic, California, Barbados, Honduras, where someone has a connection to the church.”
Callard said the Gospel for Feb. 14, the last Sunday before the 40 days of Lent leading to Easter, “is the story of the Transfiguration from Mark, where Jesus is transfigured before his disciples and appears dazzlingly white.”
“I’m preaching about the difference between looking up and seeing a long period of dark days ahead of us, on the one hand, and looking up and seeing Jesus there before us, on the other,” Callard said.
“Jesus stands there in the Gospel before us offering hope and direction and purpose. I think we’re beaten and wearied by the cultural and political chaos we’ve gone through in this last year, and beaten and wearied by COVID-19, and we’ve been beaten by the way we’ve all been disrupted in our lives. We can easily look up and just see more of that on the horizon. Or, we can look up and see hope and direction and purpose in God, through Jesus, which is offered to us as well. I think our best bet is to choose what Jesus has to offer.”