SALT LAKE CITY — In the weeks leading up to Easter several Christian denominations observe Ash Wednesday, a holy day of prayer that marks the first day of Lent, which is a time of reflection before the celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection.
For Utah, this year's Ash Wednesday, which is on Feb. 17, will be the first held since COVID-19 restrictions took hold in the state last year and Catholic parishioners might notice a few changes in response to the virus.
As a sign of repentance and faith, individuals receive ashes. In America, the ashes are distributed on the forehead in the shape of a cross as the priest says "repent and believe in the Gospel," or "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," to each individual person as they repent.
This year, to avoid one person having to touch multiple people, the ashes will instead be sprinkled atop each person's head, which is a customary tradition in Rome, The Very Rev. Martin Diaz, rector for the Cathedral of the Madeleine explained. For example, each year Pope Francis has ashes sprinkled on the crown of his head instead of distributed onto his forehead in a cross shape. Additionally, the phrases will only be recited once at the beginning; as individuals receive their ashes, it will be silent.
"It's a reflection moment for you personally," The Very Rev. Diaz said. While the experience will be different for people this year, the message remains the same: repentance and preparing for Easter.
Before the ceremony, The Very Rev. Diaz will explain the change to parishioners so they know what to expect. Going forward, after the novel coronavirus pandemic has ended, The Very Rev. Diaz isn't sure if they will return to the cross on the forehead or continue in the Rome tradition. Due to limited capacity, the cathedral isn't expecting as many people as would attend prior to the pandemic.
During Lent, Christians sacrifice certain things to represent Christ's 40-day fast in the desert, as told in the Bible.
"Lent itself means spring; kind of the idea that moves you into Easter. So there is no resurrection without death," The Very Rev. Diaz explained. "Good Friday is spread out over the six weeks, the 40 days of Lent, to remind us that's what we're about. We're in a dying situation so that we can rise to new life at Easter."
The adjustments for the Easter season aren't new: Utah churches also had to make adjustments to their usual celebrations and services this past Christmas.
At almost an entire year into the pandemic, The Very Rev. Diaz said parishioners have already sacrificed so much this year and it might help some focus on the preparation for Easter this Lent.
"The death that people have experienced in the pandemic, I think is a good reflection to prepare for the resurrection to prepare for new life," he said. "I don't know that we all need to spend too much time thinking about our sins as much as that part of us that we have to let go, in order to live through the pandemic."
"I think this pandemic has given people a chance to focus on kind of the more important things in life, which I would think are family and relationships," The Very Rev. Diaz said.