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Ash Wednesday during COVID-19 will be much different

Churches across Farmville are adapting this year to proceed with Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some congregations have elected this year to forego the traditional imposition of the ashes on the forehead of parishioners due to concerns surrounding potential coronavirus infection through person-to-person contact.

Rev. Dr. Peter C. Smith, transitional pastor of Farmville Presbyterian Church, said Farmville Presbyterian would not be doing the imposition of the ashes this year.

“I might try to do some kind of devotional message online,” Smith said.

Others are opting for a take-home approach to the day.

The Very Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Meck said Johns Memorial Episcopal Church members will be sent ashes in the mail this year.

“I’m actually writing personal notes to all of our congregants inviting them to join us for Shrove Tuesday for pancakes and greetings and then to participate virtually in our YouTube Ash Wednesday service where they can impose their ashes at home,” she said.

Johns Memorial churchgoers will find in their mail a sealed bag of ashes along with a letter about preparing for 2021 Lent.

The letter instructs that the cross of ashes is imposed in the same place as the cross of oil at baptism, and for a similar reason.

“We are marked as God’s own forever; we belong to God, and we will return to God,” the letter states.

The letter says an individual may prefer to have the cross imposed on the back of their hand where they can see it, and ashes may be imposed during the service or at any time.

Rev. Susie Thomas, lead pastor at Farmville United Methodist Church, said the church’s bishop has asked that churches in the Virginia Conference not hold Ash Wednesday services featuring the imposition of the ashes as it puts two people much closer together than the six feet of social distancing required for COVID-19 mitigation.

“Our service will be livestreamed from our sanctuary at 5 p.m. on Wednesday,” she said. “People can watch live on our Facebook page. We record our services so folks can watch at their convenience. We will offer a service that lifts up the brokenness we are all feeling now and reminds us that God remains close to us in our suffering.”

Thomas said Farmville United Methodist will ask those who worship virtually on Wednesday to prepare a dish of water, a bowl of ashes or dirt and to have a candle burning in their worship space in order to have the elements of life present. They will also be encouraged to mark their own foreheads with the ashes or dirt at home.

“I’ll miss imposing and wearing ashes this year,” Thomas said. “It’s such a stark symbol of repentance and mortality. But we hope that this ritual will connect people with God and God’s creation in a meaningful way.”