Option 1 – Forego the Imposition of Ashes in 2021
One possibility for this year is to observe Ash Wednesday without the Imposition of Ashes. While the Imposition has become a standard and meaningful practice in most of our congregations, it is not been required. The Penitential Rite (p. 611) in The Book of Common Prayer (1962) does not contain a rite for the Imposition of Ashes. The Ash Wednesday rite (p. 281) in The Book of Alternative Services (BAS) is structured to include the Imposition of Ashes. However, the rite does not require this action to take place. Therefore, it is possible to observe the BAS rite online without including the Imposition of Ashes.
While this option may feel like another COVID-inflicted loss, the omission of the action this year avoids the possibility of devising an alternative that proves undesirable in what it signifies/communicates, and how it forms us. It also maintains health protocols in a straightforward manner.
At the same time, the sign-act with ashes does not preclude alternatives to the usual manner of observance. It will need to be determined if the pastoral needs of the worshiping community suggest this option or one of the following possibilities.
Option 2 – Distribute the Ashes to Households
Another alternative is to distribute ashes in advance and allow worshipers to mark themselves and each other at the appointed time of an online liturgy. It is permissible for someone other than an ordained minister to do the imposition. Therefore, saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” members of a household “bubble” could mark each other on the forehead with the sign of the cross, or those living alone could sign themselves.
In weighing any decision about this option, you will need to determine your level of comfort in asking people to collect or deliver ashes during the present state of emergency in the province.
If you choose this option, it will be important to establish a safe means for people to drop off their palm branches from last year (or two years ago if none were distributed in 2020) prior to the Sunday before Lent, if they so desire.
Burn the palm crosses to prepare the ashes for Ash Wednesday as part of online worship on the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday. A link to a rite for this purpose is provided below, which also allows the inclusion of “the burying or putting away of ‘Alleluia!’ for Lent.” For those with access to McCausland’s Order of Divine Service 2021, helpful instructions for preparing the ashes are provided on p. 62.
Provide the ashes in small baggies or other containers for parishioners to use in the home. Determine a safe way for people to collect these at the church building, and/or for distribution to homes. Always comply with masking and physical distancing protocols of the provincial government, local health unit, and the Diocese.
As part of this distribution, you may want to include other Lenten materials, a copy of the rite for Ash Wednesday, and since we will not be able to gather for Pancake Suppers this year, all the “fixin’s” for people to make their own. Perhaps encourage or arrange for a social time on Zoom or another online meeting platform so households can share the meal together.
Option 3 – The Sprinkling of Ashes
This option is not advocating the practice of “Ashes-to-Go.” Rather, it draws upon an ancient Ash Wednesday practice of sprinkling ashes on penitents at the beginning of Lent.
In this option, you would conduct an online service. Following the broadcast, worshipers could drive by and, as long as safe distancing can be maintained, the Incumbent/worship leader(s) would sprinkle ashes on the passers by. This process could prove ‘tricky’ or messy, thus requiring careful planning ahead of time. Likewise, the same question about the advisability of asking people to leave their homes under the current regulatory conditions should be considered.
For those interested in the background and rationale related to the options above, please see click here.
The linked article is penned by The Rt. Rev. Dr. Neil Alexander, a liturgical scholar who is a former Bishop of Atlanta, now serving as a professor at the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.