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Distribution of Ashes During the Pandemic

Distribution of Ashes During the Pandemic

By Sr. Denise Herrmann, CSA, Pastoral Associate & Director of Liturgy and RCIA

Ash Wednesday is one of those notable days on the Church calendar that gets the attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics. The concept of ashes strikes a chord with people even if they don’t speak of such out loud. Ashes, of course, are related to fire, finality, morbidity, and an encounter with one’s own mortality. Such an encounter leads the healthy conscience to the need for repentance.

Examples of repenting with ashes are plentiful in the Old Testament:

  • Job repents in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)
  • Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes as the people went into great mourning, with fasting and weeping. Many people were lying in ashes. (Esther 4:3)
  • Daniel pleads in prayer with fasting, sackcloth and ashes, confessing the sins of his people. (Daniel 9:3)
  • As Jonah urged the city of Nineveh to repent and change their ways, the king in Nineveh, proclaimed a fast, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes. (Jonah 3:6)

It is interesting to note the location of the ashes in the above accounts. Putting on ashes, sitting in ashes, lying in ashes are various ways the outward sign of ashes points to the work of repenting, changing one’s ways, and turning back to God.

Due to the pandemic this year, instead of the customary (that is, customary in the United States) marking the forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross, ashes were sprinkled on top of the head for those parishioners who desired this outward sign of penance. Many other countries have had the custom of sprinkling ashes on the head as their normal way on Ash Wednesday. In the Roman Missal, the directions simply say, “…the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him…”

Whether it is sprinkling the head with ashes or marking a cross with ashes on the forehead, the focus of ashes is on doing penance, changing, repenting, and starting Lenten observances so that the heart and soul receive the graces of God to grow closer to Christ and reach out in charity to others. It is the ashes, the reminder of one’s mortality, that point the mind, heart, and soul to God, rather than the location of where the ashes are imposed.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
- Genesis 3:19

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