“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These biblical words often are recited by priests and pastors as they apply ashes to parishioners’ foreheads during Ash Wednesday services — a reminder of mortality to begin the Lenten season.
The message will hold added weight for many Christians nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in widespread loss of life and has affected families around the world.
This Ash Wednesday, local churches will be altering services in an effort to reduce further spread of the coronavirus.
Instead of a priest applying ashes to foreheads in the shape of a cross, ashes will be sprinkled atop parishioners’ heads to avoid person-to-person contact or distributed in individual containers to allow congregants to apply the ashes themselves.
The precautions are in addition to state public health guidelines that require masks in public settings and limit capacity for places of worship to 33 percent in Santa Fe County, which last week moved to yellow status in the state’s three-tiered, color-coded COVID-19 restriction framework.
Whether through online or in-person services, church leaders want to ensure parishioners have the chance to feel connected through worship as Lent begins.
“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we really do depend on each other,” said the Rev. Tim Martinez, pastor and rector at the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
“Through Mass, we’re creating that wonderful opportunity to proclaim who we are together as Christian people. All these things that we do, whether it’s the ashes or, more importantly, Communion, are reminders that we are united in Christ and bound together with bonds that can’t be broken.”
Wednesday will mark the return of in-person Mass at the cathedral, which has been closed since fall due to the pandemic.
Capacity will be limited to 70 people on a first-come, first-served basis, but there will be several opportunities throughout the day for parishioners to receive ashes.
The cathedral will distribute ashes during 15-minute prayer services at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Mass and distribution of ashes will be held at 12:10 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe recommends ashes be sprinkled atop the head or applied to the forehead by cotton swab, as per instructions by the Vatican.
Priests also have been instructed to say the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” just once to the full congregation and remain silent while sprinkling ashes on people’s heads in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus through respiratory droplets.
Martinez said ashes will be distributed at the cathedral by sprinkling them over congregants as they are walking out of the church at the conclusion of Wednesday’s prayer services and Masses. Packets of ashes also will be available to take home and share with family members unable to attend.
Santa María de la Paz Catholic Community will take the added safety precaution of having all parishioners apply the ashes themselves, or to members of their immediate family, after they pick up a plastic cup of blessed ashes when entering the church prior to Mass.
For those who aren’t comfortable attending Mass in person, the cups can be obtained during drive-up Communion following the 12:15 p.m. Mass or picked up at the parish office between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., or from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The cups will contain about 1½ teaspoons of blessed ashes, which Brenda Weimer, liturgy director at the church, said is enough to be applied to the foreheads of four to six individuals.
The parish felt the do-it-yourself option was safer as it allows for great social distancing.
“You can’t really sprinkle ashes on somebody’s head at 6 feet away, and so that’s why we came up with this idea of individual cups,” Weimer said.
Those who take ashes home may face the issue of what to do with the excess ashes.
According to canon law, blessed objects are to be treated with reverence and not thrown out in the trash. It is recommended that extra ashes be buried or sprinkled on the ground as a way to return them to the earth.
While the ashes are a reminder of mortality, Martinez said they are also “a reminder of us to resurrection. A reminder to us that this is not the end.”
Through a year of loss, he said he hopes the struggles people have endured have helped them realize the strength in togetherness.
“In the midst of our suffering, we’re learning how precious love is,” Martinez said. “In the midst of the pandemic, we’re learning how important it is to be a community of faith. We’re learning how people around the world are so tied together, how we’re united in this suffering and, hopefully, how we’re united in hope.”