Jan. 21 COVID-19 update: Bishops' guidance for Ash Wednesday

The following guidance from the bishops regarding Ash Wednesday was sent to clergy and wardens on Jan. 21, 2021.

We approach Lent once again with a determination to observe this season as a time for self-examination, repentance, and the renewal of our relationships with one another and with the God who yearns for our deepest love and most authentic service.

For many of us, the ashes of Ash Wednesday are a tangible sign of our mortality and penitence, and a powerful sign of our entry into the spirit of Lent.  We know, however, the ashes merely point towards the deeper signs of repentance, renewal, and reconciliation.  These yield the fruits of the Spirit in our life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Even while advancing our spiritual health, this year’s Ash Wednesday observances must also safeguard our physical well-being and that of those in our communities.  The coronavirus pandemic is in the midst of a dramatic surge.  At this writing, we are warned of a new more virulent strain on its way, while our health care facilities and providers are already stretched to their limits.  The imposition of ashes presents a grave challenge to public health guidelines regarding physical distancing and physical touch.

Accordingly, guidelines for Ash Wednesday are offered below.  May we find this Lenten season a time to bend the knee of our heart, praying with the psalmist:  Give me the joy of your saving help again, and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.  [Ps 51:13]

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris

  • While devoutly cherished, the imposition of ashes is an optional portion of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which includes in its richness the exposition of the Gospel; the powerful Lenten exhortation; and the penitential outpouring of Psalm 51 and the Litany.
  • “Ashes to Go” should be forgone this year.  Despite the popularity this practice has achieved as a form of evangelism and pastoral outreach, its practice will involve the repeated violation of public safety guidelines in maintaining adequate social distancing and the avoidance of physical touch.
  • If desired, ashes may be made available to the people in their homes, in the manner suggested by prior guidelines for the distribution of previously consecrated communion elements.  A small quantity of ashes, having been blessed and placed in a small envelope, plastic bag, or disposable covered cup, may be distributed to the homes of the people by clergy, lay visitors, or pastoral caregivers, or obtained during specified hours at the church, observing all physical-distancing protocols.  Worshipers are to self-impose the ashes during a subsequent online Ash Wednesday liturgy or pastoral visit.
  • The bishops continue to emphasize that, since the Nov. 19 communique, all churches are strongly urged to suspend all in-person, indoor worship, and continue to affirm all limitations of those guidelines as well as those of the Commonwealth.  Any congregation which has chosen to continue limited in-person gatherings under the restrictions of the diocese and Commonwealth should convey ashes only by providing ashes in a sealed container (as above) for self-imposition by the worshiper.
  • If ashes are to be distributed for self-imposition (as above), clergy and altar guild members must exercise extreme care in the preparation and packaging: wash hands thoroughly before preparation; wear a mask at all times during preparation; if gloves are worn for preparation, use only disposable gloves and wash and/or sanitize hands before donning gloves; thoroughly clean any vessels used in preparation, before and after use; keep ashes covered during the priest’s prayer of blessing.