Changing Liturgical Customs during a Pandemic

I regularly participate in a clergy accountability and support group. Most of the time we are helping each other navigate life as parish priests with its joys and challenges. This past year we have spent more time than ever thinking through how to “do” church liturgy creatively in a pandemic. As we are approaching Lent our conversations have turned to those customs that have become normative since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on Ash Wednesday.

In the first prayer book calendar of 1549, Thomas Cranmer referred to the beginning of Lent as, “the first day of lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday” and provided no service for the use of ashes. It was not until the 1979 BCP that a rite offered the imposition of ashes in the Episcopal Church. Not that it did not happen in some places. Parishes around the country, largely of the “high church” variety, borrowed customs from our Roman Catholic friends. The current prayer book has taught us to expect lent to begin with our foreheads being marked with ashes. Times change.

Our former bishop diocesan, +Neil Alexander, recently wrote an article on the traditions of Lent. It is a fascinating read! I am sharing parts of his article below that are guiding how we at St. Anne’s will begin our Lenten journey. Bishop Alexander writes,

“First, it is probably important to note that the Prayer Book rubric reads, If ashes are to be imposed (265). Although the present Prayer Book is the first to set forth a rite that includes the imposition of ashes…the imposition of ashes remains an optional dimension of the Ash Wednesday rite.

The imposition of ashes is generally understood to be rooted in the enrollment of penitents on the first day of Lent. That practice was later expanded to all of the laity as a sign of their own repentance and of their commitment to walking the way of Lent together with those who were to be baptized at Easter or, in the case of the penitents, restored to the faith.

The first recorded use of ashes is in the tenth century in Germany. In that case, the penitents were sprinkled with ashes, extricated from the assembly to the accompaniment of Genesis 3:19-20 (the exclusion of Adam and Eve from the garden), from which the formula for the imposition of ashes in later centuries was derived.

It was in England, in the eleventh century, that we have evidence of the sprinkling of ashes on all of the faithful, noted there in the writings of the Aelfric, the Abbot of Eynsham. By the end of that century, Pope Urban II will make the practice of sprinkling ashes on all of the faithful the practice of the western church.

So, in this time of pandemic, how does this help us? Many Ash Wednesday sermons have made much of the ritual depth to be found in the parallel between the cross marked upon one’s brow at holy baptism and the cross marked in ashes at the beginning of Lent. Such an approach holds in tension the promises of new life associated with baptism with a reminder of our mortality present not only in a ritual action using ashes, but in the words of the formula of imposition derived from Genesis 3, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The practical considerations here are minimal. The overall shape of the rite stays in place and the ashes are blessed as usual. The difference is in their distribution: sprinkling ashes on the heads of the faithful rather than imposition in the form of a cross on the forehead.

Therefore, for reasons of safety and anti-viral hygiene, let us consider for this season a return to the more ancient practice of sprinkling ashes upon the heads of the people…where even in the face of its grim realities, so intensely before us in this present time, we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Times do change. This year at St. Anne’s we are planning for three outdoor services for Ash Wednesday at 10 am, 1 pm, and 5 pm avoiding carpool at the Day School, with the imposition of Ashes and communion. We will also pre-record an Ash Wednesday service for viewing on Facebook at 7 pm. The links to sign up for these liturgies are in this newsletter. We are still required to follow all protocols with a fifty-person limit on each service. Pray that we will have nice weather on February 17th!


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