An Ash Wednesday tradition will look different this year at Catholic and some Protestant churches across the Cincinnati region.
But what may appear new is really quite traditional, church officials say.
Those who attend in-person Mass for Ash on Wednesday, Feb. 17, will have the chance to receive a "sprinkling" of ashes at the crown of their head, rather than a smudging of ashes in the shape of a cross.
The pandemic has inspired the change. But the ritual, while new here, isn't really new, says the Rev. Daniel Schomaker, vicar general for the Diocese of Covington and pastor of St. Augustine Parish.
"The practice of 'sprinkling' the ashes is a rather familiar practice in many parts of the world – just not in the U.S.," Schomaker wrote in a piece in the Messenger, the official newspaper of the diocese, on Jan. 29.
This year, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has asked priests to take anti-COVID-19 precautions on Ash Wednesday, "including sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads rather than using them to make a cross on people’s foreheads," according to Crux, an online newspaper that focuses on news related to the Catholic Church.
Schomaker noted in his Messenger piece some biblical quotes that include the concept, including this one: "From the First Book of Maccabees 3:47: 'That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments.' "
Ash Wednesday starts Lent, a period leading to Easter, when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected. The ashes symbolize mortality, repentance and eternal life.
In Covington, services for Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Basilica are set for:
- 10 a.m. – Mass and distribution of ashes (includes live stream).
- Noon – Distribution of ashes.
- 5:30 p.m. – Mass and distribution of ashes.
Everyone must wear a mask at the cathedral, and capacity is limited due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
Parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati will follow their regular COVID-19 guidelines for public services for Ash Wednesday masses, spokesperson Jennifer Schack said.
After praying for a blessing of the ashes, priests will say a traditional phrase, such as “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” to everyone attending. Priests normally say this to each person individually as they are marked.
Priests will then sanitize their hands, put on masks and sprinkle ashes on churchgoers' heads without speaking. Priests and parish leaders are being asked to advise parishoners in advance and before the start of the Ash Wednesday liturgy about the change from smudging to sprinkling.
Some Protestant denominations also observe Ash Wednesday, although not all do. The rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior/La Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador in Mount Auburn announced on Facebook she would deliver ashes and copies of the litany to those who asked for them. Those who have transportation can pick up these items at the church on Sunday or Wednesday.