Feb. 17 is Ash Wednesday in the Christian church, the start of the 40-day season of Lent — a time of reflection and sacrifice on the way to Easter Sunday.
In other years, the day is literally marked on faithful foreheads with ashen signs of the cross inscribed by priests and ministers. But this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, congregations had to figure out a safer and more socially distant way to continue the tradition — if at all.
At St. James Cathedral Basilica in Brooklyn, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, leader of the Diocese of Brooklyn, showed how the Roman Catholic Church would administer ashes in the time of COVID-19 by turning to an ancient custom that originated in Europe centuries ago.
Rather than placing a thumbful of ashes directly onto one’s forehead, DiMarzio took a pinch of the sanctified powder — the remains of blessed palms from last year’s Palm Sunday — and gently sprinkled it above a recipient’s bowed head, in a manner comparable to one seasoning food with a little salt.
Other congregations forewent the forehead ritual altogether. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Washington Heights celebrated Ash Wednesday with a social distant, ash-less service on Feb. 17 on the steps of the house of worship.
The historic, East 112th Street house of worship on 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, has not held a religious service inside its aged walls since March of last year. Putting the health of their congregation at the forefront of their minds, the only ceremonies offered during pandemic time have been either streamed over the internet or produced on the steps in front of the cathedral.
Although the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is in full swing, indoor dining has resumed at 25%, and theme parks are now set to reopen in April, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine still has no plans of resuming indoor service.
According to a statement released by the Cathedral, “Because of the COVID pandemic, the Cathedral will join the other Episcopalians in the Diocese of New York in refraining from the physical imposition of ashes, but will celebrate the rest of the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer.”
In place of a traditional Ash Wednesday commemoration, on Feb. 17, the church traded in pews for steep steps as Father Patrick Malloy the Sub-Dean of St. John the Divine prepared himself for the observance, which was set to be streamed on their Facebook page later.
“Today is the first day of Lent, which is a 40 day season leading to Easter. We call this day Ash Wednesday, and the reason we call it Ash Wednesday is that on this day traditionally Christians of certain kinds of traditions, like the Episcopal church, receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads. As a reminder of their mortality and as a mark of beginning this season of turning back to God, remembering again God’s unconditional love for them,” Father Malloy said, adding, “Well this year there are no ashes. This is Ash Wednesday without the ashes.”
Despite removing physical contact for the past year, such as shaking hands, Father Malloy wants everyone to know that the observance of Lent and other religious holidays, and the act of worshiping, albeit virtually and outdoors, is still the same.
Steven Livesay, with a Bible in hand, was ready to attend the outdoor service.
“It’s been a very dramatic process for me. I made a point of coming here today because I was here in December for the Christmas caroling, and that was followed by a shooting, and after that I decided that more than ever it is important for us to physically be here and show that we move forward,” Livesay said.
“It means a lot to me as a person of faith, as a New Yorker, as a person who is involved in this community,” Livesay added.