Ash Wednesday 2021 – A Pandemic Blessing in Disguise?

In 1988, British English language and spirituality educator Elizabeth-Anne Vanek offered this thoughtful insight on Ash Wednesday:

You thumbed grit
into my furrowed brow,
marking me
with the sign of mortality,
the dust of last year’s palms.
The cross you traced
seared, smudged skin,
and I recalled
other ashes
etched
into my heart
by those who loved too little
or not at all (Extraordinary Time, 1988).

What might strike us in this poem is how Vanek describes one receives ashes on this day. The ashes are “grit” “seared” and “smudged” into the furrows of the forehead in the shape of a cross. For many decades this is what most people have expected when they come forward on Ash Wednesday. And yet for Ash Wednesday 2021, we are asked, because of the pandemic, to not administer ashes in this way. With the precautions and restrictions on close contact brought on by the pandemic both the Congregation for Divine Worship and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have recommended that ashes be placed “on the head,” rather than “on the forehead.”

A simple request, it appears, on the surface. It adapts the non-obligatory sacramental gesture (we are neither required to receive ashes or participate in the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday) to the times and contexts in which we are now living.

Yet, additionally it creates for the faithful one more instance of robbing of a comforting tradition in this time of upheaval, anxiety, and stress. The trauma of “ashes in my hair” now replaces any self-consciousness or embarrassment of public displays of religious identification that a well-placed Cross on one’s forehead may have prompted.

And still, as in all that has occurred to people of faith in this time of pandemic, God challenges if not forces us to consider, however unexpectedly, a new awareness of what, what we do in faith actually…does. The starkness of this challenge is sharpened when we are forced to reconsider what has perhaps been taken too long for granted, and what it truly means. Which realization, in turn, may be very good for us.

There are many debates as to how ashes come to be placed on foreheads, rather than on the top of the head, as appears to be the location for such an action stemming from ancient practice. It makes sense since the top of the head is always the place for a type of commissioning – hand-laying at Holy Orders or in the anointing with Chrism after Baptism come to mind, or any time the Holy Spirit is asked to come upon an individual. In the Roman Missal for Ash Wednesday, it says specifically that “the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him.” It never says that they are placed in the form of a Cross or on the forehead.

Some who attempt an explanation for why this changed offer that it was because women were veiled in places of assembly (thank you Saint Paul), and a desire that the ashes touch the body and not something covering the body removed the place of reception to the forehead. It is interesting to add that the forehead is generally reserved as place of liturgical action to the bishop, the crown or top of the head to the presbyter.

In any event, we are asked this year to adopt this more ancient form for the administration of ashes, which is neither novel nor unusual. There are places in the world, Italy for instance, where this has always been the method for receiving ashes. Placing ashes on the head communicates two other truths about this sacramental, which can begin the Lenten journey.

The first truth is that ashes on the head is the more appropriate manner by which to experience this sacramental given Jesus’ admonitions in the gospel of Ash Wednesday. In Matthew 6 Jesus not merely provides us the Lenten disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, he more importantly tells us what not to do when doing them.

The disciplines and anything connected with them are always to be done in secret, privately, without drawing attention to us, and in a way that is cleanly. The “seared, smudged Cross” etched into our foreheads, however, has always contradicted Christ’s counsel. The yearly display of “public Catholicism” (although other Christian traditions are retrieving this practice) seems to generate more sensationalism and spectacle from social and news media than it does encourage a call to renewal of life. At times it may even appear that ashes are received more as a pious superstition than as a sign of deeper conversion. We do not receive ashes to show the world (or God) that we are believers, our humble and selfless actions ought to accomplish this.

This realization brings us to the second truth ashes on the head may reveal to us. Again, anything done to the head is done as a sign of commissioning, of taking on a responsibility of witness in the world. So too with ashes, which are not a private and personal action.

Ashes are death because that’s what ashes are, the death of olive branches in particular (or of any tree for that matter blest the previous year as the Roman Missal states). Placing ashes on the head symbolically places death on our heads. But death is not placed there in condemnation. None of the readings points to condemnation; they point to restoration and hope. Death is placed upon our heads to remind us that death gives way to life. This is the Paschal Mystery; this is what it means to live as a believer in the world. It is what we are supposed to give witness to every day of our lives.

In this extraordinary time in our human history, when death seems to have so strong a hold over us, this year’s entrance into the disciplines of Lent reminds us of who and what we must be as believers. Ashes placed upon the seat of wisdom, upon the head, enable us to begin, once again, to remember.

If we profess that with the Resurrection of Christ death has lost its sting, no longer has power over us, is not an ending but a change in human life, we receive ashes to begin the journey from death to life. Receiving ashes commissions us to give witness to our congregations, our communities, our world that God has won the victory over death. It is God who leads us out of darkness into God’s own wonderful light. A re-direction, an adaptation, to the way ashes are received may seem like a subtle change; yet God works best through subtlety.

The exception to this year’s practice for Ash Wednesday may be a one-off, or it may become an alternative in future years. What is important for us to awaken to and contemplate this year is the power of this action. If we choose to receive them (and even if we do not) what we are called and reminded to witness to as believers in the world is the triumph of God over sin and death. We take on death as Christ did so that we may also contribute to its defeat. This is a challenge not for the faint-of-heart, but through the disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting we are given once again the tools to succeed in it.

11 comments

  1. Can you direct us to a video that shows just how this is accomplished? I have never seen it done. Are the ashes sprinkled? Pinched?Does the sign of the cross play a role?

      1. Karl Liam, thanks, those photos are helpful. They suggest that the quantity of ashes being sprinkled is very small.

        Interesting that both of the photos seem to show the dispensing clergyman making physical contact with the heads of the ones receiving. Naturally, care will need to be taken this year not to touch any heads.

    1. I know that back in my college days in New Haven in the late 1980’s this was still practiced at St. Stanislaus B.M. Church. It’s staffed by Vincentian Fathers who are mostly all from Poland. Not sure what is done there today.

    2. Thanks for the still shots, Karl. I’ve seen stills of the Pope doing it in Italy too.
      Personally I think the sign of the cross is a powerful part of the ritual, as it connects up to the paschal mystery. From a still, I don’t know if it figures in this sprinkling practice in any way.

      Different ways of experiencing the use of ashes can elicit different spiritual responses, and this is something I am quite open to. I wrote about this a few years ago.

      https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2016/02/10/ashes-as-paradox/

  2. Many thanks for this excellent post.

    I am not sure how (or if) this observation aligns with the injunction to practice our prayer, fasting and almsgiving in secret: I can’t think of another way, or another day, in which we most publicly, boldly and visibly declare our faith in Christ, as when we go about in public with our seared, smeared, smudged foreheads. Ash Wednesday has become a day for public witness. Perhaps that willingness to witness publicly to one’s faith represents a sort of conversion in its own right.

    It may be worth considering that the injunction to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving in secret is contrasted with the desire for worldly praise and honor. Public witness witness to faith seems a different sort of thing. Or so it seems to me.

    Then, too, we have the entire season to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The public witness of ashes on the forehead on this single day can supplement, rather than substitute for, those virtuous (and converting) practices.

    Just sharing these brief reflections on a set of possible meanings of the smudged forehead.

  3. I am aware of a number of parishes where they have determined that even restricting themselves to sprinkling on the head would be too dangerous, both for the penitent and the minister. You can’t sprinkle from a distance — in fact you probably have to be closer to the penitent than normal to position your fingers over the head instead of smudging the forehead. Having vulnerable clergy in close proximity to significant numbers of people appears foolhardy to these parishes. (And yes, the same could be said about the distribution of Holy Communion, but that would be the subject of a different thread.)

    What these parishes are doing, therefore, is providing small individual sachets of ashes for people to administer to themselves at home. (Obviously this can also benefit the housebound and those participating by livestream.) The sachets can be obtained from ecclesiastical suppliers. They are placed in baskets and blessed at the normal point in the rite, and people are invited forward at the end of the Mass to take their own sachet away.

  4. Maybe we would benefit from a little background, Jim.
    You say in the post “We are asked” but could you tell us who is asking? Maybe provide a link to your source? I am aware we are all in different dioceses so folks will want to know whether to expect it to take place everywhere or just in some places, as the pastor decides.

  5. I’ve always understood (alongside the reminder that dust we are and to dust we shall return) the smudgy cross of ash on the forehead as a reminder of the way my own sins besmirch the cross signed there during Baptism.

  6. Like with so many things in liturgy (most things?) we have retconned something that was probably put into place because of practicality rather than any symbolic or spiritual purpose. I wonder how alcohol-based hand sanitizer will be spiritualized in 200 years. Not that this is a good or bad thing, but I think it should give us pause to at least analyze a practice. In this case, I always felt a huge disconnect between what was being instructed in the scriptures of the day and walking around with a giant black smudge on my head. I’m all about going into and evangelizing the world, and am happy to share my faith story and journey, but Lent is, I think, the one time of the year when the church should retreat, look inward, probably do less talking and more listening (individually and communally), which is just a healthy way for any human or organization to operate. So I don’t agree with how we’ve let Ash Wednesday become this big outward/opportunity for sharing the faith with the world event, that isn’t going to help us begin Lent. Without observing a worthy Lent as individuals and as a people, we won’t make very good evangelizers the rest of the year. Next year I’m certainly going to initiate the conversation in our parish to consider distributing the ashes in this more ancient way that I believe is better connected with the symbolism and essential intent of the season. I will be interested to speak with folks this week about their experience of receiving the ashes in this manner, and how it might impact their observance of Lent.

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