Masks, spaced seating, and plentiful bottles of hand sanitizer are just a few of the many visible effects of COVID-19 in our daily life. But people seldom mention another, more widespread, ramification of the pandemic: facing one’s own mortality. In the span of a year, nearly 2.5 million worldwide have died of the virus alone, to say nothing of other natural causes. Yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, Providence gathered in a ceremony that recognized the reality of our looming deaths with the words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
Ashes have long been associated with death, and continue to be throughout our culture. The famous blockbuster film Infinity War showed defeated heroes dissolving into dust. The Bubonic Plague gave birth to the rhyme: “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” And, of course, every Ash Wednesday Catholics congregate to receive ashes, reminding us of our passing back into the dust out of which God first formed Adam and Eve. Wednesday’s mass kept this sacred tradition.
Even though some things were modified to fit COVID-19 standards, such as the location students congregated or the fact that they congregated in three separate groups, students and teachers alike still received ashes and heard the words from Genesis 3:19 echoed.
Only one thing was different. Ash distributors sprinkled burned palm branches over participants’ heads, rather than smearing them on foreheads in the shape of the cross. Odd as this sounds, the practice isn’t as novel as it might seem.
School chaplain Father Michael McClellan explained, “The Vatican has asked us to distribute ashes this way, which is actually the more traditional Catholic way. The tradition of smearing ashes on the forehead developed in modern America, so most of the world doesn’t even have to change anything this year.”
Although most of the world may not have to change the way they carry out Ash Wednesday, the pandemic will certainly put a spin on the way we carry out Lent as a whole.
Religion teacher Ms. Anne McCulloch commented, “Lent during a pandemic is an invitation to ask ‘How do we love as a community when we’re distanced?’ When we think of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, this year will emphasize the profound internal spiritual component, versus most years, when it’s so easy to focus on external sacrifices.”
Forty days of sacrifices may seem daunting when piled on top of the sacrifices we’ve made this year due to the Pandemic. But, when started off with a mass, with the grace of the Eucharist as food to keep going, one can enter into Lent with great hope.
Señor Donohue, who distributed ashes Wednesday, reflected, “It is a great way of starting anything, with a mass, but I think the Ash Wednesday Mass is special. It is one of those masses where you come away with something different. It’s important to people, somehow.”