Steven Spearie|State Journal-Register
What's old is new again because ofthe COVID-19 pandemic.
Most Christians marking Ash Wednesday thisweek won't get the familiar cross of ashes traced on their foreheads.
Rather, local Roman Catholics and Episcopalians will have ashes sprinkled onthe crowns of their heads, a practice from the Middle Ages still done in some European countries, said Andrew Hansen, a spokesman for the Springfield Catholic Diocese.
That directive, Hansen said, comes from the Vatican. It also avoids any skin-to-skin contact, he said, where a priest or deacon would mark a person's forehead with his thumb dipped in ashes.
Bishop Daniel Martins of the Springfield Episcopal Diocese said he is leaving the question to local pastors, though he is urging either the sprinkling of ashes on heads or applying ashes with a cotton swab as "alternatives to consider."
Related: Rev. Samuel W. Hale Jr.: The real church is not a building.
Lutherans and Methodists have come to the dispensing of ashes as a rite more recently.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, leading to Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
Another familiar touch of the ritual is being done away with this year, Hansen said.
Usually, the priest or deacon applying the ashes says to each person "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," harkening back to the Book of Genesis verse and a reminder of man's mortality, Hansen said.
This year, the priest will only say it once from the pulpit before people receive ashes, Hansen added.
Using ashes as a sign of repentance is an ancient practice, mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Early Christians adopted the use of ashes from Jewish practice as an external mark of penitence.
Ash Wednesday as a ritual dates from about the eighth century, most sources indicate.
The Lenten journey, Hansen said, is a reminder to Christians "to take a step back from the world, to think about fasting, to think about sacrificing, to think about increasing your prayer life and ultimately growing in your relationship with God."
While Ash Wednesday isn't a holy day of obligation for Catholics, it is a day of abstinence and fasting.
Everyone 14 years of age and over is bound to abstain from meat on Wednesday. Everyone 18 years of age and under 59 is required to fast, meaning only one full, meatless meal is permitted.
Two other meatless meals, which, put together, can't equal a full meal, can be consumed but snacking between meals is not permitted. Liquids, including milk and fruit juices, are allowed, according tohttps://www.dio.org/lent.
There are exceptions to the rules considering a person's health, Hansen added.
Ash Wednesday is a tradition, Martins said, that Episcopalians "are quite attached to."
"Of the non-Sunday regular occasions for worship that are not Christmas, Ash Wednesday usually sees the highest attendance," Martins said.
Catholics in the Springfield diocese are still under a dispensation from the obligation of attending weekly mass because of the coronavirus.
Bishop Thomas John Paprocki has discussed lifting the dispensation, issued March 14, Hansen said, as several other dioceses have done recently.
Hansen said because the diocese, which covers 28 counties, has pockets of urban areas along with rural areas, "we're trying to find that balance between looking at the numbers and how we can do it safely and responsibly.
"That, right now, is something we're always mindful of and so when we are making these decisions, that's near the top of the list."
Related: Continue masking and distancing after you get vaccinated.
Dispensation or not, Hansen said he hopes Catholics find their way back to the pews.
"Especially now during Lent, to get your mind, body and soul prepared for Jesus' passion, death and resurrection, what better way (is there) than coming back to mass?" he said.
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Ash Wednesday occurs the day after Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday,the last day of carnival.
Ashesused in theceremonyare made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on Palm Sundayof the previous year.
The 40 days of Lent Sundays aren't counted is reflective of the New Testament account of Jesus' fasting for 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry.
Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter and the date for Easter has been determined by a lunar calendar since the First Council of Nicea in 325. Easter is celebrated the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21, the start of spring.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia, BeliefNet, SJ-R research
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 524 E. Lawrence, Springfield
Our Saviour Catholic Church, 453 E. State St., Jacksonville
Christ Episcopal Church, 611 E. Jackson St., Springfield
St. Alexius Catholic Church,215 W. Fifth St, Beardstown