WARSAW — “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Anybody who’s attended church on Ash Wednesday likely knows the words. But they’ve gained added poignancy this year for Pastor Ryan Rovito of Valley Chapel Free Methodist Church.
He applied his own ashes early Wednesday morning — a day which would typically include church services now canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Congregation members were instead invited to retrieve prayer cards at the church, along with small containers holding ashes of their own. They’d take them home for a time of reflection as individuals and families enter the Lenten season.
“It’s some new meaning in this new context,” Rovito said. “We’re thinking about our own mortality in ways that we don’t, under normal circumstances, because of COVID. And because of the loved ones we’ve lost, and the suffering we’ve endured while mourning people.
“We’re extra aware of it, and for those who come out and pick up ashes and go through this, I think this ritual will have new meaning or new nuance that wouldn’t be there otherwise, or would at least be hidden.”
Valley Chapel is among the area churches which adapted their Ash Wednesday practices as they entered the Lenten season. The 40-day period is traditionally one of reflection and repentance in preparation for Easter.
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the situation somewhat, as the realities — the infections, the isolation, quarantines and social distancing — have philosophically paralleled some aspects of the season itself.
“Ash Wednesday is supposed to be something that reminds us of our mortality,” Rovito said. “I think we’ve had a lot of reminders of our mortality during COVID.”
Valley Chapel typically conducts three to four Ash Wednesday services. Although the congregation’s excited coronavirus numbers are decreasing locally, they won’t return to in-person services until early March.
And there is a connection.
“In the process of remembering our own mortality, we are thinking about why we remember our own mortality,” Rovito said. “We’re thinking about it because we realize the life we have is a gift from God, so there’s gratitude built into that. And the fact we’re doing it for Easter is an exercise in hope.”
The ritual recognizes there’s something good, fresh and recognizable approaching — that darkness isn’t here forever. And the take-home ashes have given the congregation the chance to reflect on their own.
“It’s D.I.Y. in that way, but not making it any less valuable that it is D.I.Y.”, Rovito said. “It’s putting the work of reflection and connecting with God into the hands of the people who are actually reflecting and connecting with God.”
The area’s Roman Catholic churches, in the meantime, continued to offer in-person Masses with the standard COVID-19 precautions, although distribution has been largely changed to the Roman method, in which ashes are sprinkled on the parishioner’s head.
Rev. Matthew Phelan O. de. M. of Our Lady of Mercy and St. Brigid parishes in Le Roy and Bergen, spent two years in Rome, so he was already acquainted with the practice.
“It doesn’t feel like we ever ended last year’s Lent,” he said. “For me, the whole theme in the Catholic liturgy ,,, it’s really all about returning to God.”
Initial estimates were the state lockdown would last two weeks, he said. It’s now 11 months later and aspects of life are beginning to return.
Ash Wednesday isn’t required by the Roman Catholic Church, he said, so people are showing up on their own.
“This whole theme of returning, even if we’re not obliged to is God is calling us back to return to him,” Phelan said.”He’s there with his mercy.”
“It’s not about penance per se,” he said. “It’s how do we get God back in our lives because we’ve gotten so used to doing it all at home.”
Like Rovito, he noted the sense of hope.
“Sometimes people forget (worshipping together) is our lifeline and it is necessary for survival,” he said. “We concentrate on physical survival but sometimes we forget about spiritual survival. I don’t feel we want to go into (the Lenten season) sad. Let’s go into it with hope and joy, because God gives us our exit strategy.”