I will first offer a few things up front: if you are looking for creative ways to impose ashes for your Ash Wednesday service here—none will be offered. If you are looking for ways to possibly recreate this ritual in person outdoors—those won’t be offered either. I am of the strong persuasion that this service with its imposition of ashes, is not safe in person—especially the ritual itself, which brings the “imposer” and the “imposeé” in close proximity to each other, thus increasing chances for the transmission of the Sars-CoV-2 virus.
Here is a statement from the Ecumenical Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacramental Practices team about Ash Wednesday in 2021:
and here is another from a well-known expert in worship practice, Dr. Marcia McFee, PhD who also provides a lot of other ideas and even her own scripted service that is a part of her “Fully-Scripted” Lenten worship series, “Holy Vessels:”
That being said, I do want to offer something that I believe can be useful to you in your online services. My own congregation, Lakewood United Methodist Church in Colorado meets on Zoom, and we will be finding ways to do Ash Wednesday together, though we aren’t together in person. But that doesn’t mean that these worship elements below aren’t translatable to a pre-recorded service, either!
Relatively speaking, Ash Wednesday is not a very old Christian tradition. It emerged sometime around the 11th century as a way to mark the beginning of Lent—a period of time in church history that has been a preparation for confirmands and baptizands to enter into the baptized community of the church. Lent is also a time of fasting—refraining from eating for periods of time and allowing ones hunger to prompt them to a closer relationship to God. The Lenten fast, like Ash Wednesday, has transformed over time. Where once it was fasting from most foods, now Lent has become a time of fasting from particular luxuries or activities. We Protestants haven’t really observed Ash Wednesday broadly until around the mid-60s into the 70s after the Vatican II council—a powerful moment in the history of ecumenical relationships in the church. Regardless of when we started this practice, the imposition of ashes is a powerful ritual; it is a ritual connected to our acknowledgement of mortality—a main theme of Ash Wednesday. “From dust we are, and to dust we shall return,” scripture says. But with Lent’s connection to preparing for baptism, I wanted to offer an alternative to this ritual of ash imposition that can work will around the dinner table at home.
With Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of a penitential season, and Lent’s relationship to baptismal preparation, I offer a ritual action option that involves the use of a particular kind of paper that dissolves quickly in water. (You can purchase it here: https://www.amazon.com/SmartSolve-Water-Soluble-Thread/dp/B08NDVHBT4, I recommend cutting it into strips and allowing folks to pick it up or mail it to their homes if you have the capacity to do something like that). With Ash Wednesday being an opportunity to recognize our mortality, and reckon with our sinful state, as it were, for Lent, we can link this sense of our mortality to the “death” we encounter in our baptisms. The ritual will consist of inviting folks wherever they are to write something that is binding them from deeper relationship with God that they would like to release during Lent during a time of confession and then, later in the service, drop that slip of paper with its writing into a bowl of water symbolizing our baptism where it will quickly dissolve—its memory residing within us as a commitment to practicing a Holy Lent.
I have included a few recommendations for songs in this article as well, but you are certainly not bound to them—I invite you to lean on the expertise of your church musicians or, if you are seeking a conversation partner to go deeper on song selection, I would be happy to chat with you via email at firstname.lastname@example.org! I am on Dr. Marcia McFee’s Worship Design Studio team and am also a certified trainer of her methodology of worship design. If you or your team would be interested in learning more about this, you can reach me at email@example.com! Enjoy.
—Rev. Ben A. David Hensley ∞