Ash Wednesday, the doorway into our Lenten season of renewal, will be observed a little differently in 2021. Due to social distancing and the need to limit contact to combat the spread of Covid-19, some of our practice and observance this year will be in our homes.
Ash Wednesday is a day rich in associations and symbolism. It marks the beginning of Lent – a time for turning again to the practice of our faith, in prayer, self-denial (fasting) and practical generosity (almsgiving).
Ash Wednesday is the doorway into our Lenten season of renewal.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of our Bishops’ Conference, has circulated his Pastoral Letter for the start of the season of Lent.
The text on this page comes from the letter.
An outward sign of an inner step
“As we cross this threshold we customarily receive ashes on our foreheads, in the sign of the cross. This is a public mark of our turning again to God, seeking his mercy, forgiveness and help. We use these words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. Yes, we cannot pretend otherwise. Or: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’. Yes, we seek the one thing that is absolutely necessary: the grace of God.
This year receiving ashes in church is going to be difficult. Yes, our churches are safe if the protective measures are fulfilled. But we must all be very careful about travelling too far. Some churches will of course be open for the celebration of Mass as usual. But I have asked them not to make extra provision for Ash Wednesday.
We must be so careful and cooperative in the measures we must take, to protect ourselves and to protect others.
I now want to emphasise an important point. Receiving ashes is an outward sign of an inner step, a movement of the heart towards our beloved Lord.
This year I invite you to concentrate much more on this inner, spiritual movement than on its outward manifestation in the imposition of ashes.
My suggestion is this: celebrate Ash Wednesday at home, with your family, in the household or ‘support bubble’ of which you are a part. Gather for a while. Read the prayer which I offer. Bless each other by making the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead. Spend some time praying in a way that you know.
But please, make this a prayer of your heart for God’s mercy upon this world struggling to cope with the terrible pandemic and the devastation it is bringing.
With all our hearts we beseech you: have mercy on your people; spare your people;
strengthen all people in the struggle against the havoc of this pandemic.
Lord our God, without you we are so weak and our courage so limited.
Give us your strength; give us your love; give us wisdom and skill to continue this fight.
Spare your people, O Lord we pray.
Comfort those who mourn and gather into your kingdom all who have died.
We make this prayer through Christ our Lord, who died and rose to life,
who lives and reigns with you, for ever and ever.
Then, bless each other, using one of the two traditional formulas:
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.
Or: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’.
Then continue with your own prayers.
As a child, my mother or father used to come to my bedside each night to settle me for sleep. I was kissed goodnight and then, either my Mum or Dad would make the sign of the cross on my forehead. They gave me their blessing. This brought me such security. I remember it to this day. Then I slept in peace.
So please do not hesitate, within your household or ‘bubble’, to bless each other on this Ash Wednesday. We do well to remember together our need of the good Lord. Together, and through each other, he wants to comfort and reassure us of his loving presence. If, on this day, we set aside every pretence that we can do everything of ourselves, then we create in our hearts and lives the space for God’s grace and strength to find a home in us.
This is the great invitation of Ash Wednesday and of the weeks of Lent which follow.
Please do take up this invitation. Open your hearts to the gift of God’s presence to support, comfort and strengthen you. This year, it may be best to do this, not by going to church, but by sharing the prayer, the blessing and this moment of dedication within the love of your family and friends.
Please do include me in your prayers, too.
May God bless you all,
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
Archbishop of Westminster
The Cardinal has suggested a pattern of prayer for households and those in a ‘support bubble’.
For the first Lockdown in March 2020, the Liturgy Office and members of the Spirituality Committee produced material to help people pray at home during Lent, Triduum and Easter.
That material will be available again but here are two resources for Ash Wednesday which follow the pattern of last year’s material:
A short time of prayer for families or individuals.
The PDF has two formats – A5 and A4 folded.
Ideas for praying through the Day.