Ash Wednesday in the era of coronavirus: How to observe it safely

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has published guidance detailing the distribution of ashes in order to avoid physical contact for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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Rather than the traditional marking of the Sign of the Cross with ashes on the forehead of each person, the guidance says the priest will bless the ashes and address those present, reciting once the formula: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The priest then will sprinkle the ashes on each person’s head without saying anything and without any physical contact. 

The custom of sprinkling ashes on the head – not the forehead – is an ancient practice of the Church still used widely in many countries around the world. 

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Lent is the 40-day penitential period before the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead at Easter. The imposition of ashes on the head is an ancient Jewish tradition found in the Old Testament. Once a public sign of an individual’s repentance, it became part of the Church’s Lenten preparations by the seventh century. 

The Archdiocese of Washington, in partnership with the Diocese of Arlington, presents The Light is On, an initiative where Catholic churches across the DC metro area will be open with continued COVID-19 safety precautions for quiet prayer and confessions throughout Lent.

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Find times, locations, and confession resources at