COVID forces changes to Ash Wednesday traditions in Birmingham, world

Ash Wednesday under COVID restrictions

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Today, many Christians across the world are observing Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

The beginning of Lent is observed by being marked by a cross of ash on the forehead, but in the age of COVID, churches are being creative.

Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of Catholics attended Mass at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover, but instead of being marked by the traditional cross on the forehead as a sign of penance, they received a sprinkle of ashes on top of the head.

“I think this is what the church has asked us to do in these directives. In a manner of being safe, this eliminates any physical contact with the head,” said the Very Reverend Justin L. Ward, STL, Vicar for Sacred Liturgy at the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham.

The sprinkle of ashes is a recommendation from the Holy See in Rome. While the sprinkle of ashes on top of the head is not a tradition here in the United States, it’s the preferred method in many other parts of the world.

“It will be different, but it’s an opportunity for us to revisit the traditional meaning and gesture. As Catholics, we can do things over and over, but not actually think about why we do them so this gives us an opportunity to adapt and dive deeper into this meaning,” said Father Ward.

The Catholic Diocese of Birmingham hopes to return to the traditional cross on the forehead next year.

Memorandum from the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham:

Distribution of Ashes on Ash Wednesday (February 17)

During this time of pandemic, the Holy See has modified the method of distributing the ashes. These changes minimize the necessity of physical contact between minister and recipient and remove the need for the minister to speak while in close proximity to the recipient. The distribution of ashes via sprinkling is a common practice in some countries but is not well known here. Therefore, ministers are encouraged to provide some explanation to the faithful, to avoid unnecessary confusion. We recall that the sprinkling ashes on the crown of the head recalls the biblical method of putting on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of penance: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth upon their heads” (Neh 9:1). While the American method of putting ashes on the forehead, usually in the sign of the cross, allows the ashes to be visible to others so that the communal, penitential nature of the day might be more readily visible, the modified method of distribution during a time of pandemic certainly hearkens back to the more traditional manner.

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