Ash Wednesday is February 17, and the familiar ritual of receiving ashes will be a little different this year because of the pandemic.
The Vatican has asked priests around the world to sprinkle ashes on the heads of the faithful rather than using the ashes to make the sign of the cross on foreheads.
In addition, the celebrant will say “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” only once, before the distribution of ashes, and will not say it over each recipient.
The idea is to minimize contact, and to eliminate the need for the celebrant to speak in close proximity to the recipient of the ashes.
The use of ashes is a tradition with roots in the Old Testament. “I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
Sprinkling ashes on the tops of slightly bowed heads, rather than using them to mark foreheads, is not a new practice; it is the norm in many countries of the world.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a time when Catholics are called to prayer, to fasting, and to almsgiving, which means donating money or goods to the poor, and performing other acts of charity.
The ashes are rich in symbolism. They are a call to repentance, a physical sign that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. They remind us that God created us from the earth, and that we will return to it when we die. They also symbolize God’s promise that even though our bodies will return to dust, our souls are meant to live forever with Him.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning last year’s blessed palm branches.
As a reminder, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting, and of abstaining from meat. Fasting is defined as eating one full meatless meal, as well as two smaller meals that are not equal to a full meal. Catholics also do not eat meat on the other Fridays in Lent.
In Catholic News Service photo above, Pope Francis sprinkles ashes on the head of a cardinal as he celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome Feb. 26, 2020.