Ash Wednesday in time of Covid-19
The Catholic Church through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a note last January 12, 2021 instructing the priests on how to distribute ashes to the Catholic faithful on Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten Season. The instructions are the following:
After blessing the ashes and sprinkling them with holy water in silence, the priest addresses those present, reciting once the formula found in the Roman Missal: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
At that point, the note continues, the priest “cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask, and distributes ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places.”
He then sprinkles the ashes on each person’s head “without saying anything.”
The said instructions published are in response to the present pandemic due to COVID-19 to keep the faithful safe as the Church begins its observance of the Lenten Season which officially begins on Ash Wednesday. It may surely be a far different way of starting the season of penance and repentance as compared to previous years where in ashes are imposed individually on the forehead. But with these “new ways” of expressing our contrite hearts, it only shows how important it is for us Catholics to continue to observe this tradition that greatly expresses our longing to be reconciled with God.
So, as we prepare for the Lenten Season, let us once again be reminded of the importance of this season particularly our practice of imposing ashes on our foreheads or in our present case, sprinkling ashes on the faithful’s head.
1. Ashes remind us of our mortality. This passage from Genesis 3:19 “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” is the other formula being used in the Roman Missal as the priest imposes the ashes on the forehead. (The other one is “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” Mark 1:15/ Luke 19:5-9). The passage from Genesis reminds us that we will all go back to where we came from, that is, from the dust. Our mortality makes us aware that our earthly life is a gift from God. Thus, we have to treasure it and make the best out of it by loving and serving our Lord. It should also humble us for everything that we have comes from God.
2. Ashes express our inner desire and our response to God’s call for repentance. “Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) Jewish people would always use dust and ashes as an expression of their repentance. Again, it is used to humble themselves, to remind that we are nothing but dust before God and there is no point to be proud and arrogant in His Divine Presence. The counter part of the Jewish tradition to our Lenten practices, e.g., imposition of ashes, fasting and penance, is the Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.
3. Ashes symbolize penance. While repentance marks the inner conversion of a person, penance on the other hand expresses this inner desire to something tangible through good works and self-discipline. “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:13).
By doing penance, mortification, fasting and the like, especially in the Season of Lent, we do not simply show our repentance but it also helps us discipline our senses and tame our desires for good in order to overcome, through the help of God’s grace and examples of Jesus, the “unholy trinity” of sins and temptations: Money, Sex and Power or Possession, Pleasure and Pride/Power.
Thus, as we reflect on the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday on February 17 (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), we have to purify our intentions especially our act of worship in prayer, make almsgiving a habit and intensify our observance of fasting so that we may rise victorious over temptations not only in this season of Lent but most importantly in our Christian life as a whole.
Fr. Emil D. Valeza (Chairperson - Caceres Commission on Bible Apostolate)