This coming Wednesday we begin the season of Lent by celebrating Ash Wednesday. While the readings and prayers of this celebration will be the same as in previous years, the actual distribution of ashes, because of COVID, is going to be very different from what we have been used to in years past.
On January 12 of this year, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship issued a directive specifying the way ashes were to be distributed at all the Masses for Ash Wednesday this year throughout the entire world. What will NOT happen this year is the typical American custom of ashes being mixed with water and the “paste” of ashes and water applied by the priest with his thumb to each individual coming forward in the shape of a cross, while doing so speaking one of the two formulae of either “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Instead this year, when the time comes for the distribution of ashes, the priest (from the altar) will pray one of the two formulae once over the entire congregation. He will then put on a mask, go to the aisle, and as each individual comes forward, he will take a small pinch of dried ash and sprinkle the ash on the top of the head of each person, without saying any words at all.
Now, as Americans, this is going to strike us as REALLY strange and unusual. However, there are a couple of things to be said about this way of distributing ashes. First of all, it avoids the situation of the priest’s thumb coming into contact with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in the course of one Mass. This is clearly the reason the Vatican has instituted this form of distribution… so that the priest is not in contact with the skin of so many different people.
But what is also true is that the custom of sprinkling dry ashes on the top of the head is the USUAL CUSTOM used every single year in Rome, throughout Italy, and indeed throughout much of the world. While we don’t realize it, the American custom of having a paste of ash & water smeared on people’s foreheads in the shape of a cross is a particular “oddity” of American Catholicism. It’s an oddity that I personally like, and that (I believe) gives a great evangelical witness to our Catholic faith. But it is not the usual custom in much of the rest of the Catholic world. So instead, this year we will receive ashes the way much of the rest of the world receives them. We will have no big, black crosses on our foreheads that proclaim to the rest of the world that we are Catholics.
We will have no people looking at us with strange glances, asking us why we have “dirt” on our foreheads. We will have no overt way of proclaiming to the rest of the world that we are Catholics.
Instead… the only people in the world who will know that we have received ashes are ourselves. So this year, not having that public witness to the rest of the world, we are able to focus entirely on the meaning of receiving ashes for ourselves. To internalize the message that we, indeed, are dust. And soon… whether “soon” is a year, or ten years, or 80 years… soon unto dust we shall return. And during this very brief span of time we are given to live on this earth, we are to live in such a way as to proclaim that our true homeland is not this world, but the world to come.
The way we receive ashes this year will be different. But the message to us is the same. May we spend our years here as dust in such a way as to live for the world that will never end.
Fr. John Paul