(RNS) Ash Wednesday is one of the touchiest observances on the liturgical calendar — literally.
Many churches mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent with the imposition of ashes. Clergy smear ashes, usually those left after burning palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations, onto congregants’ foreheads, often in the shape of a cross.
That practice presents a problem when health experts fighting COVID-19 have advised people to avoid touching their faces or coming in close proximity to others. Some churches haven’t met since the pandemic first upended life during the last Lenten season.
An ecumenical group of clergy, theologians, liturgical scholars and public health experts recently released guidelines for safely observing Ash Wednesday, which falls this year on Feb. 17, recommending no indoor meetings, lots of hand sanitizer and, when doling out ashes in a drive-thru, keeping the line moving to avoid traffic jams.
“The pandemic has to be paid attention to,” said the Rev. Taylor W. Burton Edwards, pastor of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Warner Robins, Georgia.
Drive-thru ashes have been gaining popularity in recent years for busy Christians unable to attend weekday Ash Wednesday services. This year, they join drive-thru live nativities, drive-thru communion, even drive-thru confession.
The Rev. Stacy Gahlman-Schroeder of Norway Grove Memorial Lutheran Church in DeForest, Wisconsin, plans to stand in the church parking lot throughout the day, dipping disposable Q-tips into the ashes, rather than her finger, or offering a blessing, if it’s preferred.
As cold as that sounds, Gahlman-Schroeder is looking forward to it.
“I’m selfish on this,” she said. “I really do want to see the faces again. It’s been a long year.”
Other recommendations from the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacraments include distributing ashes to congregants for their personal use — Scripture, the document points out, describes people sprinkling themselves with ashes. The group also approved the Vatican’s recommendation for priests to mix ash with holy water and wordlessly sprinkle it on congregants.
And it suggested churches can forgo ashes altogether.
Luckily, the ashes — while perhaps the most visible part of Ash Wednesday observances — aren’t the most important, said Burton Edwards, one of the group’s co-conveners.
“That’s the thing that’s widely misunderstood. Nothing in any of the historic liturgies requires the imposition of ashes,” he said.
The consultation — whose members come from the ELCA, United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic Church and other Christian traditions — began largely as an initiative by Candler School of Theology, according to the pastor.
It first met in April to develop guidance for churches as the initial wave of lockdowns lifted across the country. With support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it released a detailed report on resuming in-person worship last summer.
It reconvened this fall, Burton Edwards said, “when it became clear we were about to go through another Lent, probably, with a serious social distancing needs in mind.”
Brief, outdoor gatherings may be safe, the group advised, as long as participants wear masks, keep their distance and have no symptoms of or recent exposure to COVID-19. That also depends on case numbers and hospital capacity in the surrounding area, according to the guidelines.
Burton Edwards wasn’t sure last week what his church will do to observe Ash Wednesday.
In his area, the positivity rate was too high and the hospitals too jampacked even to meet outdoors, he said. But that can change quickly, he added.
“You just have to watch the numbers, right?” he said.
The core of Ash Wednesday is its call to repent, both personally and corporately, and to face mortality, according to the consultation’s guidelines.
But the Rev. Kathleen Ulland-Klinkner is thinking the best Lenten experience for her parishioners may be warm thoughts.
Ulland-Klinkner’s church, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota, went all out with the lights at Christmastime to be a beacon of joy, casting a warm glow over the community.
The ELCA congregation wanted to continue that “warm culture” through the somber days of Lent. (Temperatures are forecast in the teens next week in Minnesota.)
“During the whole pandemic, the challenge for us is to not only help people stay connected to God, but how do we stay connected to each other? How do we help people stay positive and find joy and still feel like a warm and caring community of faith?” Ulland-Klinkner said.
And so Our Savior’s is leaning into Fat Tuesday — the last hurrah before Lent begins — which often is celebrated with pancakes and other sweet treats.
The church will host a drive-thru in its parking lot for the occasion, serving funnel cake fries from a local food truck and handing out Lenten resources for congregants’ use at home.
Its Ash Wednesday service will follow online, but, the pastor said, “Part of being a follower of Jesus is we can’t do it on our own, and it’s always about being part of a community.
“To be a community to go through this together has just been really difficult.”