Catholics will be showered with ashes or have the traditional cross traced on their foreheads with a cotton swab this Ash Wednesday, according to the Diocese of Scranton.

“Ash Wednesday will look different this year but the significance of the day will not change,” said Eric Deabill, diocese spokesman. “Ashes can be distributed to the Catholic faithful as long as there is no direct contact.”

Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day of prayer and fasting and the first day of Lent, the six-week religious observation held before Easter Sunday. Last February, hundreds gathered in churches of different denominations across the region to begin the holy season. This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is prompting changes to Ash Wednesday services next week.

The 118 parishes across the 11 counties in the Diocese of Scranton are asked to select one of two possible options to anoint the holy with ashes, which symbolize penance, mourning and mortality.

Ashes can be sprinkled on top of parishioners’ heads. Throughout much of the world, this is the normal way of distributing ashes, according to the diocese.

The priest will say the prayer for blessing the ashes, sprinkle the ashes with holy water and then address all those present to say the call to repentance. The minister will then sprinkle the ashes on each person’s head without saying anything. During distribution, the minister and the recipients must be wearing masks, according to the diocese.

Ashes can also be distributed by a minister using an individual cotton swab for each recipient. With the cotton tip, the minister will trace a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Again, both the minister and recipient must be properly wearing masks during the distribution. A new cotton swab must be used for each person and, after each use, will be placed in a receptacle for burning.

The diocese reminds the faithful that receiving ashes are not required .

Other Christian denominations also typically celebrate Ash Wednesday by providing ashes.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Scranton has suspended all in-person worship at this time, said the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, priest in charge. The church will live stream the liturgy on Ash Wednesday at 6 p.m. without providing ashes.

“I really wish that we could, because I know people connect very deeply, in fact quite profoundly,” she said. “This year, the better thing to do is to not do it.”

The rubrics for the church’s prayer book say “if ashes are imposed,” she noted.

“So ‘if’ of course makes it conditional right there … there’s also a line in the margin that … indicates it’s an option,” she said.

Episcopalian liturgy does call the faithful to observe Lent through prayer and fasting.

“This year we need to focus more on the other aspects of observing Lent,” Barnes said, noting the ashes are not a sacrament.

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