In many parishes the distribution of ashes (a sacramental) is an activity in which the priest or deacon is assisted by lay ministers (frequently chosen from among the extraordinary ministers of communion, but others may be chosen too). Lay ministers may be conducting a celebration of the Word and distributing blessed ashes in schools or nursing homes too, for example (see Book of Blessings 1656–1659).
I wanted to share an experience of something that worked well in a parish setting to prepare these ministers for their once-a-year service as distributors of ashes.
We met as a group a day or two before Ash Wednesday for some spiritual preparation as well as a rehearsal. Here is the outline, with some explanation of how it worked.
Prayer (This sets the tone, and can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. We used a combination of sung and spoken prayer.)
Introductions (Some did not know each other, so this was important not only so that they could work in teams, but also to establish a sense of community among the ministers for the event.)
Faith sharing (The participants were invited to reflect on two questions: What does the ritual of ashes mean to you personally? and What do you think it means to the various people who come to receive ashes? They shared their responses in small groups for about 5 minutes. Then a few insights were named in the large group.)
Input (Very brief, highlighting the connection between this ritual and the Lenten observance, and perhaps sharing a personal story, drawing attention to the paschal mystery.)
Rehearsal (Practical matters were clarified such as making sure everyone knows their stations, when they are to come forward, what text they will use, how to handle clean-up, etc.)
Setting aside time for preparation, and above all grounding the experience in prayer and shared reflection, allowed the ministers to be more centered and recollected in their service. I also believe this is a natural moment for liturgical catechesis and community building around a specific liturgical event. The feedback was very positive!