Some priests have been handing out ashes at the doors of their churches to allow Catholics to observe Ash Wednesday while adhering to social-distancing rules during the pandemic.
Today marks the first day of Lent, when Catholics and many other Christians observe the ritual of having their foreheads marked with ash crosses to mark the first of the forty days of the penitential season.
The ashes are traditionally made by burning the palm crosses made to mark Palm Sunday in the previous year, after which they are blessed by a priest, thus linking the ashes with the way of the cross and Christ’s crucifixion. This symbol of penitence and humility is especially appropriate in a time of pandemic, but hard to observe whilst maintaining social distancing.
Many parishes have returned to the medieval practice of sprinkling the ashes on the heads of congregants rather painting them on with a finger.
But with some churches shut and many of the faithful shielding or self-isolating, more inventive methods of participating in the ritual have been devised. Author and commentator Austen Ivereigh tweeted that he received a copy of the bishops’ suggestion for a domestic liturgy “of word and sign” and a “sachet of blessed ashes”.
Parishes across the world have had a similar idea, and thousands of Christians applied blessed ashes to the heads of family members and themselves. For many who have had to avoid church attendance this was the first tactile act of worship they have been able to perform since restrictions on worship began.
The Church of England introduced an Instagram filter that allows users to be marked with an ash cross virtually. This forms part of the Church of England’s #LiveLent – God's Story, Our Story Lent campaign which hopes to connect with both young people and those effected by the pandemic.
Speaking about the new filter Amaris Cole, the Church of England's head of digital, said: “Traditionally, Christians walk around on Ash Wednesday with the cross on their head and many tell us that they get stopped and asked what that cross means. So, we're wondering whether the same will happen on social media. Perhaps people will share the ash filter on Instagram and other people might message them and ask what it means to them.”
In Rome, Pope Francis said Lent was a time to reconsider the path one is taking in life and to finally answer God's invitation to return to him with one's whole heart: “Lent is not just about the little sacrifices we make, but about discerning where our hearts are directed, toward God or toward myself?” The Pope’s remarks came in his homily at Mass for Ash Wednesday, which included the blessing and distribution ashes.
Because of ongoing measures in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the Mass and distribution of ashes took place with a congregation of around 100 people at the Altar of the Chair in St Peter's Basilica. He received ashes on his head from Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of the basilica, and he distributed ashes to about three dozen cardinals, as well as the priests and deacons assisting him at the Mass.
Pope Francis said: “It is a time to reconsider the path we are taking, to find the route that leads us home and to rediscover our profound relationship with God, on whom everything depend.”
The way back to God, he said, starts with understanding, like the prodigal son, how “we have ended up with empty hands and an unhappy heart” after squandering God's gifts on paltry things, and then with seeking God's forgiveness through confession.