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Ash Wednesday is Feb 17, and like many things, COVID has reshaped how we worship and practice our faith.

When I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital, I encountered the richness of the ritual of imposition of ashes. The hospital chaplain staff would create a schedule and map of how to effectively administer the ashes to all the staff and patients who requested them.

Before COVID, we made sure to wear a dark colored shirt (due to ashes getting all over our clothing). We found small containers with lids and memorized the phrase  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Then we would use our bare fingers to touch forehead after forehead (without washing our hands in-between!) and make the sign of the cross with our ash covered fingers.

Chaplains in the CRC have been meeting virtually with the Chaplaincy and Care Ministry for weekly prayer, connection, and resource sharing. Here’s a few ideas for Ash Wednesday suggested by these chaplains that could be adapted for your setting.

  1. Virtual: Send out ashes in individual containers and hold a virtual worship service.
  2. In person: Wear a mask in close contact with folks. They strongly suggest N-95 or double masking to ensure safety for others. Wash or sanitize hands before engaging with others. If there is a waiting line, observe social distancing. Sanitize objects or hands if there is contact with the other person. Always wash hands after the service.
  3. Swabs: Most chaplains are using cotton swabs to dip and apply ashes to the foreheads. The ashes are mixed with a little oil (cooking) to create a paste to aid in application. There are variations depending on whether the chaplain will impose or the recipient will self-impose the ashes.
    1. Marc Zumhagen, children’s hospital chaplain, shared that their protocol will be speaking through a mask or holding out a laminated card with the words of imposition “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
    2. Another variation is to use a spoon and drop ashes into the recipients hand to self-impose the ashes.
  4. Stickers: NY Hospital Chaplain James Kim shared that they will be using these stickers rather than imposition of ashes.
  5. US Veterans Affairs protocol (sent by Rev. Sarah Hoogendoorn): This process is only for VA employees rather than residents.
    1. The chapel will be open at scheduled times to distribute ashes. We intend this to be for employees only. In the past employees have come who cannot attend their local church due to their work schedule. We are planning on distributing to Veterans in the CLC, RRTP and 115 in their clinical areas by the chaplains assigned to those areas. This would not be open to outpatient Veterans this year.
    2. To observe restrictions due to COVID-19 the following safeguards will be put in place. Foot traffic is restricted to one-way travel and will be marked by signs and floor arrows with employees entering in the west hallway chapel door and exiting through the west hallway chapel door.
    3. We will mark six foot social distance spots leading to the ash distribution station which will be at the front of the chapel (east end of the chapel near the altar/stage area).
    4. We have and will set up a hand sanitizing station near the distribution area. We have replacement sanitizer for our station in case we run out during the distribution times.
    5. Chaplains will use applicators to apply ashes so there is no physical contact. Chaplains will also wear face shields as they administer ashes and provide words of invocation at distances within six feet.

We want to hear from you. Do you have any more suggestions? Please share your churches or institutions safe practices for Ash Wednesday in the comments below!

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