No ashes? Ash Wednesday changes for some amid COVID pandemic

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NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Wednesday marks the beginning of the six weeks leading up to Easter and one of the holy days for Christians -- Ash Wednesday.

It's a day that usually requires a lot of personal contact for believers who get ash in the form of a cross rubbed on their foreheads.

But that all changes during the coronavirus pandemic, when such close contact with a stranger isn't exactly social distancing.

"How would you do this safely?" said Fr. Christopher Heanue, of Holy Child Jesus Church. "Would one now have to Purell their hands after every person?"

In a year in which pews are taped off and and churches are doing most services virtually, it's no surprise that the very physical nature of Ash Wednesday might call for some sort of spiritual pivot.

As a result, some churches were refraining from the physical imposition of ashes.

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"It means a lot to me, especially this year because of the crazy pandemic," congregant Miguele Dayda said.

At St. Patrick's Cathedral in Midtown, Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan celebrated Mass at noon to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of Increased prayer, penitence, fasting, and acts of charity in preparation for Easter on April 4.

Dolan began the day by helping to distribute food at 7 a.m. at the St. Francis of Assisi Breadline, outside St. Francis of Assisi Church. Ashes were being distributed at St. Patrick's following Mass at 7 a.m., noon and 5:30 p.m., and according to the Archdiocese of New York, it was being done "respectfully following social distance guidelines" and with a spritz of hand sanitizer between blessings.

The Brooklyn Diocese was not distributing ashes in the traditional form and were instead sprinkling them on one's head.

"We're not putting on these ashes as a sign of, 'Look at me and how holy I am,'" Fr. Heanue said. "We're doing it because it is an interior relationship with our God."

At the Brooklyn Basilica, it was sprinkle of ashes, instead of a smudge.

"It felt good," congregant Remy Martinez said. "Real comfortable and safe."

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"The happiness in my heart is indescribable," her father said.

The Cathedral of St. John the Devine in Washington Heights is hosting an outdoor Ash Wednesday services at noon and 7 p.m., as well as virtual services.

"It's been almost a year since I was able to attend, so this is particularly meaningful," parishioner Ekatarina Sukhamoa said.

The Cathedral joined the other Episcopalians in the Diocese of New York in refraining from the physical imposition of ashes.

"I still got the blessing," parishioner Laura Harding said. "That was my main thing, to get the blessing."

And at some churches, there was yet another option. In a year in which curbside pickup has become a thing, some churches are giving out ashes that way -- with parishioners picking them up and put them on during a Zoom service.

The bottom line is that you might see ashes in many different forms on Wednesday, not meant as disrespect, but as a way to keep the faith and stay COVID safe at the same time.

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