How to make Ash Wednesday meaningful and safe during COVID-19

Date Posted: 2/11/2021

By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Celebrating Ash Wednesday presents a number of challenges during COVID-19. In addition to the usual considerations for finding a way to gather, there’s also the obstacle of eliminating touch from the tradition of imposing ashes. Christ Church Sugar Land rose to the occasion, creating a number of ways for members to involve and make Ash Wednesday both meaningful and safe.
“Like everybody else, we’re trying to figure out how to do regular things in an irregular season,” R. DeAndre Johnson, pastor of music and worship life, explained.
The congregation had hoped that pandemic restrictions would be lifted by now, since almost a year has passed since COVID-19 began. By November and December, however, it became clear that preparations for Ash Wednesday, Feb.17, would have to go back on the drawing board.
Church leaders brainstormed possible scenarios. The church was already live-streaming sermons and keeping in-person worship limited and socially distanced. Continuing to meet virtually would be a given for Ash Wednesday, Johnson said, but he also wanted to have another option, for people who wanted to participate -- even if that looked a little different this year.
He wondered, how could pastors impose ashes on church members without touching their foreheads? A big hurdle led to a tiny solution.

 Photo taken prior to Covid-19.

“Q-tips,” Johnson said. “We’ll take one Q-tip per person for the imposition of ashes. People can stay in their cars. It will be very similar to a drive-through testing site. Two or three weeks ago, we came up with this solution, and we’ve been running with it ever since.”
Members will be invited to drive up on Ash Wednesday and their pastor, wearing masks and gloves, will administer the ashes on their foreheads using a Q-tip.
The same method will be used later in the day, during services for congregants attending in-person worship.
A third option will also be available. Christ Church Sugar Land is creating a lent-to-go package that members can pick up at church. The kit includes bagged ashes from Palm Sunday and devotional materials. Johnson will create an instructional video on how a family can impose ashes on each other, when they are livestreaming the service online.
“They can stay at home with their families and pods,” Johnson said. “They can do the imposition among themselves at home.” 
He wanted to offer options for members, regardless of whether they are ready to return to the building for worship. “There will be an opportunity for everyone to participate at their own comfort level,” he said.

Johnson explained that the ashes serve a ritual importance, symbolizing the spiritual discipline required to draw closer to God. “We need to enter into a posture of repentance,” he said. “We have to realize that by the grace of God, we are made whole.”
Continuing with the tradition -- and offering that experience to congregants -- was crucial. “That’s an important practice, and I wanted to make sure people could engage in it,” Johnson said. “We had to find other ways to invite people into that space.”
Lately, Johnson has been thinking of the Biblical stories of the Israelites in the wilderness. “Nobody wants to be in the wilderness, and they grew tired of being there,” he said.
Nonetheless, they remained there for 40 years. “They were tired, and yet they discovered in the wilderness ways to be content,” Johnson said. “They learned better to hold onto hope and the assurance that God indeed is leading them to a Promised Land.”
The pastor finds many parallels for traversing the uncertainties of the pandemic. “Sometimes wilderness lasts longer than anyone wants or can imagine,” he said. “But faith lives, and we continue to lean on God. He will lead us where we need to be.”
In the midst of waiting and continued setbacks, finding an anchor in God is key, Johnson added. That’s what Lent is all about.
“We want to help people reengage and help people find an anchor for the soul,” he said. “We can acknowledge that chaos surrounds us. We can resent it, but what we cannot do is despair. Hope is never lost.”