Ash Wednesday is annually observed as the beginning of Lent, a time where the faithful repent, reflect, and fast for 40 days (excluding Sundays). This was the time where Christ was said to have fasted in the Judean Desert—all the while resisting temptation from Satan. Therefore, in honor of His life and sacrifice, members of the Catholic Church practice Ash Wednesday 46 days before one of the most joyful celebrations of the year, Easter Sunday, His day of resurrection.
Ashes represented two things in the Old Testament (OT): death and repentance. It places an emphasis on Genesis 18:27, “I am but dust and ashes,” and acts as a reminder that human flesh was made from clay and dust. Moreover, it serves as an admission of everyone’s mortality which encourages Christians to live according to Christ’s example. In addition to being seen as a public acknowledgment of one’s wrongdoings, they symbolize the promise made to resist further giving into temptation as well. All in all, it’s a cry for forgiveness, compassion, and ultimately, mercy.
Traditionally, the ash present during Ash Wednesday’s Mass comes from the palm leaves burned on Shrove Tuesday. It is then mixed with olive oil or holy water before the presider daubs it in the form of a cross on each parishioner’s forehead. The act exemplifies that the individuals who receive it are intent on purifying their minds and hearts and preparing for Easter Sunday. However, this tradition is put on hold as a result of the recent COVID-19 (formerly known as coronavirus) outbreak.
Pablo Virgilio David, a Kalookan Bishop and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Vice President, shared that contrary to the mass suspension in Hong Kong, “We will not be canceling masses. But we will be taking some precautions.” As an alternative, priests will be sprinkling the ash on the parishioners’ heads to actively prevent body contact.
Moreover, the CBCP also wrote a letter dated January 29 that included a few additional guidelines. Now, churches, chapels, and parishes are instructed to:
- Regularly check and change the holy water in their fonts
- Install cloth on their confession booth’s grills as an extra layer of protection
- Discourage Mass-goers from handshaking during the sign of peace and holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer
- Encourage them to receive communion by hand
The CBCP has also issued an Obligatory Prayer (or Oratio Imperata) for protection against the virus.