Ash Wednesday spooked by coronavirus

Today, Feb. 26, Catholic and Aglipayan priests in many towns of this predominantly Christian Southeast Asian archipelago, including the cities of Manila and Makati, will separately intone before their parishioners  “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

With some added guidelines from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, no thanks to the spreading COVID-19, the CBCP issued liturgical advice in a circular to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, particularly during the Holy Week.

In its circular released on Feb 20, the CBCP recommended sprinkling or dropping small portions of blessed ash on the crown of the head during the imposition of the ashes today.

The CBCP also recommended against kissing or touching the Cross during the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, strongly suggesting to the public to just genuflect or make a profound bow.

In Quezon City, Rev. Fr. Aris Sison, rector of The Immaculate Conception Cathedral of Cubao, told GMA News Balitanghali in an interview, beamed nationwide, some churches would offer Catholic devotees the choice of sprinkling ash on the crown of their heads instead of marking their foreheads as a precaution against COVID-19.

He said the diocese of Cubao would still follow the traditional ritual – marking the foreheads with ash, but the devotees would have the option to receive the ashes on their foreheads or not “since they might be afraid of infection.” 

In many Ilocano towns up north, like Pinili in Ilocos Norte and Binalonan in Pangasinan, the priests will say “Tao, sika ket tapok, ket iti tapok agsublikanto.”

In Bayambang, Pangasinan, the Catholic priest will say in Pangasinense “Tuo, sika et abo, umpawil ka ed abo.”

In Cabagan, Isabela and other Ibanag-speaking towns where the Mass will be said, the priest will tell the faithful “Y tollay ay naggafu ta davvung ay manoli ta davvung.”

In Minglanilla, Cebu, the Catholic priest will himself declare “Ikaw tao gikan ka sa abu ug mabalik ka sa abu.”

Separately, the priests will be echoing, in at least four regional languages, what the Benedictine priest at the Our Lady of Montserrat Abbey near Malacañang or what the parish priest at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Brookside, Cainta in Rizal will be saying from the book of Genesis, at about the same time.

Feb. 26, 2020 is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, its official name being “Day of Ashes,” so called because of the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s forehead in the sign of a cross.

Theologians say that since it is exactly 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter Sunday, it will always fall on a Wednesday—there cannot be an “Ash Thursday” or “Ash Monday.”

Religion scholars say the Bible never mentions Ash Wednesday—fact is, it never mentions Lent.

They add Lent is intended to be a time of self-denial, moderation, fasting, and the forsaking of sinful activities and habits.

Among Catholics and Aglipayans—the Aglipayans are basically Catholics except that they confess directly to God and their priests can get married—Ash Wednesday commences the period of spiritual discipline.

Fr. Jaime Padilla, the 57-year-old parish priest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in the middle income subdivision Brookside Hills, says putting of the ash on the foreheads of the faithful “is a reminder to us that we are all human beings, of flesh, dust and sin, and we ought to change and improve from out sinful ways.

“We ought to listen to the Lord, turn away from sin, be sorry for our sin, make sacrifices and turn to holiness instead of remaining in sin and dust… Ash Wednesday is a wake-up call for us Catholics who live our faith.”

He adds, during an interview with the Manila Standard, “At the start of Lent, we are reminded to do prayer, fasting and alms-giving—the three pillars of good Christian life—which prepares us for the commemoration of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.

“But what is important is not the outward sign of having the ashes imposed on the foreheads. It is more essential to have the cleansing of the soul, the cleansing of the person within.”

Ash Wednesday and Lent are observed by most Catholics and some Protestant denominations. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not observe Ash Wednesday; instead, they start Lent on “Clean Monday.”

Scholars say while the Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday, it does record accounts of people in the Old Testament using dust and ashes as symbols of repentance and/or mourning.

The modern tradition of rubbing a cross on a person’s forehead supposedly identifies that person with Jesus Christ.

In predominantly Christian Philippines, which received the Cross in the 16th century following the arrival in the islands of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, Ash Wednesday is a sacred ritual, with the priest placing ashes in a cross sign on the foreheads of the faithful.

Ash Wednesday, chased by Easter Sunday which comes at the end of 40 days of prayer, fasting, and alms giving, is a movable feast, meaning it falls on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter and can occur as early as Feb 4. or as late as March 10.

As the priest, who placed the oil earlier on his forehead before presiding at the Mass or service on the congregants, rubs the ashes on the forehead of the faithful and recites the Genesis line.

Some priests whisper: “Repent, and be faithful to the Gospel.”

The ashes used are collected, after the Palm Crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, are burned on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

In some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens, one of the sacred oils used to anoint those about to be baptized, although some churches merely use ordinary oil.

The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshiper traditionally retains until it wears off.

Theology scholars suggest the act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God—as related in the Bible.

The ashes are blessed, in accordance to the different rites appropriate to each liturgical tradition.

Sometimes, Holy Water is used. In some churches, the ashes are mixed with light amounts of water or olive oil which, according to scholars, serve as a fixative.

In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 is especially associated with the first day of Lent.

In some of the free church liturgical traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day.

In the Roman Catholic Church, ashes, described by some scholars as sacramentals, may be given to any Christian, as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity.

Similarly, in most other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and have received the sacrament of baptism.

In the Catholic Church in the Philippines—from as far north as Batanes to as far south as Tawi Tawi—Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance.

The day is scheduled for contemplating one’s transgressions.

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals which, together, should not equal the full meal.

Here, senior citizens—those who have reached the age of 60 years—are clearly excluded. Even those on maintenance are excluded, according to Rev. Fr. Sandy Añonuevo of the Diocese of Antipolo.

Some Roman Catholics go past the minimum obligations demanded by the Church, and go through a complete fast or a bread and water fast.

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (for those Catholics age 14 and over), as are all Fridays in Lent.

Some vegetarian Catholics argue, and with good reason, that vegetarians should be exempted, since they hardly eat meat anyway and thus the obligation does not for them, in their conviction, hold water.

They say the abstinence from meat was applicable in earlier times since the earlier Catholics were meat eaters.

Some Roman Catholics continue fasting during the whole of Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

Religious denominations observing Ash Wednesday—those holding a service of worship or Mass – include the Liberal Catholic Church, Church of the Nazarene, Lutheran churches, Christian Church and the Old Catholic Church.

Easter, the greatest feast in the Christian calendar, is the principal feast of the ecclesiastical year.

Leo I (Sermo xlvii in Exodum) calls it the greatest feast (festum festorum), and adds that Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for Easter.

On this Sunday, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Through spiritual struggle and self-denial, the Catholic faithful prepare themselves to die spiritually with Christ on Good Friday, the day of his Crucifixion, so that they can rise again with him in new life on Easter.

Easter is a day of celebration because it represents the fulfillment of their faith as Christians. St. Paul wrote that, unless Christ rose from the dead, our faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:17).

Through his death, according to scholars, Christ saved mankind from bondage to sin, and he destroyed the hold that death has on all mankind.

But it is Christ’s resurrection that gives man the promise of new life, both in this world and the next. 

Topics: Catholic , Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines , COVID-19 , Ash Wednesday , Holy Week
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