Jan. 27 COVID-19 update: Bishops' guidance for Ash Wednesday

The following COVID-19 update with the bishops' guidance for Ash Wednesday was sent to clergy and congregational and diocesan leadership on Jan. 27, 2022.

Jan. 27, 2022

Dear Colleagues,

We approach Lent yet again with unexpected concerns about how to balance our observance of this sacred season with care for one another in an extended pandemic.

Last year, given conditions then prevailing, we were left with only the most limited options for observing Ash Wednesday, that powerful moment of our entry into the spirit of Lent. Many of you were creative in your response, devising methods for providing your parishioners with ashes for self-imposition which--while lacking the fullness of the Ash Wednesday liturgy’s grace--laid claim to a measure of its blessing.

Though the Omicron variant’s spike seems to have peaked, we nonetheless must continue a vigilance which will safeguard our physical well-being and that of those in our communities, not risking further pressure on the hospitals still strained to the breaking point. The guidelines below provide options for some return to our cherished Ash Wednesday practices, with continued precautions in place.  

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.  [Psalm 51:13]

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

Bishops' Guidance for Ash Wednesday 2022

•    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 again this year. The protocols for safety and precautions which we maintain in our houses of worship cannot be presumed or regulated in public places, especially outdoor locations. Therefore, despite the popularity this practice has achieved as a form of evangelism and pastoral outreach, its practice should be deferred again this year.

•    If desired, ashes may be made available to 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. Worshipers are to self-impose the ashes during a subsequent online Ash Wednesday liturgy. At pastoral visits where ashes are imposed, a Q-tip or cotton ball is to be used for the imposition of ashes (using a new swab or cotton ball for each person).
•    Clergy should be masked and the ashes covered during the prayer offered over the ashes.

•    At in-person services where ashes will be offered, one of three methods should be followed:

  • Ashes may be distributed to worshipers in a small container for self-imposition, as described above;
  • Ashes may be imposed by the clergy with a single-use Q-tip or cotton ball for each person (using a new swab or cotton ball for each person);
  • Ashes may be imposed by the clergy directly but only if the thumb is cleansed each time with a disinfectant wipe or similar cleansing agent before each imposition

•    The bishops continue to emphasize that all churches are to observe the protocols set forth in our communication of Jan. 12.  Requirements include mandatory mask-wearing at all church events, physical distancing between households, and full vaccination of all persons who are engaged in ministry with the most vulnerable, including children age 12 and under, homebound or immune-compromised persons, and those in hospitals and care facilities.

•    If ashes are to be distributed for self-imposition (as above), extreme care is to be exercised 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.