Ash Wednesday traditions adapt to the pandemic

Due to the coronavirus, Ash Wednesday will look different this year, as some congregations across the city plan distanced or entirely virtual ways to safely observe the first day of Lent.

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Urban Village Church offering ashes to people who are willing, at 63rd & Cottage Grove during Ash Wednesday 2013

Ashes being offered at Urban Village Church, 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, during Ash Wednesday in 2013.

Sun-Times file

Tomorrow marks the start of Lent, but Ash Wednesday traditions will look a little different this year across the city as churches find creative ways to observe the holy day amid the pandemic.

The Archdiocese of Chicago announced new protocols for distributing ashes, which are typically applied to foreheads in the shape of a cross. This year, celebrants are advised to sprinkle ashes on parishioners’ heads, as is done in Europe, or mark a person’s forehead with the ashes using a cotton ball or disposable, and non-plastic, Q-tip.

Bishop Robert Casey, who serves as vicar general for the archdiocese, said Ash Wednesday holds greater significance this year because of a desire for community support. The holy day is meant to remind Christians of their mortality — which he said bears a new meaning amid the pandemic and the city’s ever-growing death toll.

“In these months, we have come to see even more visibly — in our lives and in our world — our vulnerability and our mortality,” Casey said. “[Lent] is a moment to improve our connection to God and improve our connection to one another.”

Other denominations also are marking the holiday differently this year.

Pastor Hannah Kardon from Urban Village Church said her Methodist congregation plans to hold an assortment of Ash Wednesday observances — from virtual reflections and devotionals to socially-distanced ash distributions and blessings at Daley Plaza. The church’s “Ash-a-thon” will run throughout the day; parishioners are invited to be blessed or participate in meditations and interact with members of the congregation.

“For some folks, seeing someone is a really important part of it,” Kardon said. “Ash Wednesday is about our humanity, our frailty, our mortality. For a lot of people, this is the time when they’re thinking about those things a lot.”

The church has distributed ashes at CTA stations in past years, but Kardon said this year they will play it safe. Programming will be remote, and packages of ashes and oil will be handed out for people to apply to themselves — foregoing the traditional smudge to maintain a safe social distance. 

Urban Village also is mailing out ‘Home Blessing Kits’ with ashes and literature. Kardon called Ash Wednesday “remarkable” because each year she has noticed less-active churchgoers start to reconnect with their faith.

“This year more than ever, people need to connect to something bigger than themselves, something to rely on in times of trouble,” Kardon said.

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