“When you’re immediately out of the hospital, you are so delighted by ordinary things. After a period, you go back and take it for granted,” Cole said. “Ashes are a powerful reminder of the fragility of life.”
Typically, on Ash Wednesday, church leaders in liturgical traditions across the globe remind parishioners of their human mortality by saying something like “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” President Biden, a lifelong Catholic, annually receives ashes in the sign of a cross on his forehead.
In 2020, the holiday fell on the day after federal officials said Americans should brace for the spread of the virus. Ash Wednesday was the first day many religious leaders began to tweak their rituals by adding steps like hand sanitizer, but it wasn’t clear to many leaders just how devastating the virus would become.
Now, with nearly half a million Americans dead, many Catholic and Protestant leaders are adjusting this year to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Scientists believe covid-19 spreads through close contact between people, especially if they are physically within six feet, and some are encouraging congregants to self-administer ashes.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington will follow guidance from the Vatican recommending priests sprinkle ashes on people’s heads without saying anything instead of swiping it on the forehead.
Across the District, churches have tried to come up with tweaks to the holiday to avoid exposure to the virus. The Rev. Rachel Cornwell, pastor of Dumbarton United Methodist Church, is encouraging parishioners to burn their own ashes safely at home and to watch a virtual service.
“I hope it’ll give an opportunity to reflect what we’ve been through personally, individually in our community and in the world,” Cornwell said. “There’s hope on the horizon.”
Instead of ashes, congregants at Cleveland Park Congregational United Church of Christ will be asked to identify something that has been consuming in the past year, such as a worry stone or a word written on a piece of paper. During the service, they will reflect on the subject and then be asked to surrender it.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill will host an art project where people send words for a banner created with dust and as it washes away, congregants re-create it throughout the 40 days of Lent. And Mount Zion United Methodist Church is inviting congregants to pick up ashes and also drop off soup cans for its shelter when they stop by the church.
Usually, Ash Wednesday is meant to startle Christians in affluent contexts like the United States because it reminds them that they will die, said Esau McCaulley, a biblical scholar at Wheaton College in Illinois.
“To remember you’re going to die isn’t going to have the shock when you have the context of half a million people have died,” McCaulley said. “How are we going to live not just after a pandemic but in light of the fact that we’re going to meet our maker?”
Lent, the 40 penitential days of preparation leading up to Easter, is often marked with fasting and the giving up of something like chocolate or alcohol. McCaulley said he wouldn’t focus on the giving up of something as much as attending to spiritual practices, such as prayer.
“Lent isn’t just about me feeling bad about the things I did wrong. It’s about the possibility that those things don’t have to define me anymore,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is make someone feel bad for having coffee in the middle of a pandemic.”
In 2020, ahead of Easter, President Donald Trump said he wanted the country “raring to go” by Easter, but many churches are about to mark an entire year of having their sanctuary doors closed. Others have managed a hybrid of online and in-person worship.
Christ Church Georgetown, Cole’s church, had about 400 in attendance on a weekend before the pandemic and now averages around 60 people in person, a number that has been inching up each week as more people get vaccinated, he said.
Cole, who was a military chaplain for 20 years, said giving ashes to soldiers was especially powerful to experience because they were so aware that they could die at any time. Similarly, death has been front and center in many Americans’ minds this year.
“The message of Ash Wednesday is that if you acknowledge your own mortality, it enables you to look at other people in a compassionate light,” Cole said. “You might not agree with them, but you can understand them … and it makes you less judgmental.”