Catholics are marked with ashes on foreheads on Ash Wednesday/ Internet Photo
In normal times, Catholics are marked by putting ashes on the foreheads of the faithful to mark the beginning of the lent period. However, the ritual will be observed differently this year.
The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has asked priests to take special anti-COVID-19 precautions this year when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday which will be observed this week on February 17.
The guidelines issued in a short note titled; ‘the distribution of ashes in time of the pandemic’ directs priests to sprinkle the ashes with holy water on the head of each one rather than the traditional marking of foreheads.
According to the note, the priest will be required to cleanse his hands, put on a face mask, and distribute the ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places.
“The priest says the prayer for blessing the ashes. He sprinkles the ashes with holy water, without saying anything. Then he addresses all those present and only once says the formula as it appears in the Roman Missal, applying it to all in general; “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”, or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the note reads in part.
Rev. Fr. Dr. Pius Male Ssentumbwe, Kampala Archdiocese chancellor, recommended the sprinkling of ashes on the top of people’s heads as is the customary practice at the Vatican and in Italy.
Given the spread of the coronavirus disease, Rev. Fr. Dr. Ssentumbwe says the practice is said to be with the advantage of not requiring the priest to touch multiple people.
The use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40-day preparation period (not including Sundays) for Easter. The days are held in commemoration of Jesus who spent 40 days in the desert fasting while being continually tempted by the devil. During the period, Christians remember Christ’s sacrifice by fasting or giving up luxuries as a means of reflection and repentance.
Several sources indicate that the ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates at least to the 8th century. Ash is used to express mourning, mortality, and penance. It is also a symbol of outward expression of the need to begin again.
In Uganda, the ash which is distributed to the faithful on Ash Wednesday is normally obtained by burning the palm branches which were used on the palm Sunday of the previous year.
However, given the fact that the last Palm Sunday was celebrated in silence as churches were still under lock, Fr. Ssentumbwe notes that they were able to get some palm leaves used by the small congregation who attended the Palm Sunday Mass last year, and hope they will be enough for the Ash Wednesday ritual.
The Ash Wednesday ritual is not the first religious’ feast to be affected in the same of covid19 pandemic. Since last year, all denominations have been bending the rules, rituals, and patterns of praying.