Ash Wednesday begins a season of repentance for Christians around the world. They will fast and give up things they love in order to focus on their faith and hopefully develop a deeper relationship with God.
For many, an important part of Ash Wednesday – Feb. 17 this year – is the Imposition of Ashes, the tradition that involves smudging ashes in the shape of a cross on a person’s forehead. It’s the tradition after all that gives the day its name. Ash Wednesday is the start of the 40-day season of Lent leading up to Easter. The ashes are a symbol of repentance, mourning, and mortality.
But how do you smudge ashes on someone’s forehead during a pandemic when public health officials caution against close contact? Ash Wednesday, like so many other things, is bound to look a little different under COVID-19’s shadow.
Religious leaders around the world have been weighing alternatives – sprinkling ashes on congregants’ heads or using hand sanitizer and rubber gloves to apply ashes. Some churches are even offering at-home Ash Wednesday packages to go along with an online service.
Catholics as well as some Protestant congregations – Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian, for example – observe the tradition of applying ashes on Ash Wednesday.
This year at St. Columba Catholic Church in Dothan, the Imposition of Ashes will be done with Q-tips.
“We’re going to impose them putting the Q-tip into ashes and then tracing across on their forehead and then dispose of that Q-tip,” said the Rev. James Dane, pastor of St. Columba. “Each person gets a separate Q-tip.”
The 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Mass in the main sanctuary will each include Imposition of Ashes. There will also be services just for Imposition of Ashes at noon and 4 p.m. in the smaller chapel and a Spanish-language Mass with Imposition of Ashes at 7:30 p.m.
St. Columba will continue to observe social distancing as it has since the pandemic began, Dane said. Like so many others, the church is working on how to handle Easter services.
For several years, First United Methodist Church in Dothan has held Ashes to Go, a drive-thru Imposition of Ashes where members pull their car up to designated stations where a clergy member applies the ashes.
The church opted to forego ashes this year but will still do drive-thru Ash Wednesday stations from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at the First United Methodist Church children’s entrance, in the Christian life center parking lot and at Friend Bank in Dothan. Instead of ashes, congregants will receive pieces of sackcloth marked with crosses. The squares were made by the church’s youth and tweens ministries. At 6:05 p.m., the church will host an in-person Ash Wednesday worship service that will also be live-streamed.
As referenced in the Bible, sackcloth was worn as a sign of the penitence. That is why the church chose the sackcloth squares to take the place of ashes, Senior Pastor Jim Sanders said. The sackcloth squares will be the reminder that the ashes normally are for people.
“We will stress the same things,” Sanders said. “We’re entering Lent, a time of introspection and reflection and confession of sins. And the sackcloth because of how rough it is, how coarse it is, reminds us of the roughness of life … and the cross that’s on it reminds us that we have a savior, that there’s hope.”
Peggy Ussery is a Dothan Eagle staff writer and can be reached at email@example.com or 334-712-7963. Support her work and that of other Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.