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Churches Get Ready for Ash Wednesday in a Pandemic

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In this Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, a Catholic devotee has ash sprinkled on her head during Ash Wednesday rites in Manila’s Paranaque, Philippines. Sprinkling ash on the head of devotees, instead of using it to mark foreheads with a cross, is one strategy to avoid physical contact during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File) In this Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, a Catholic devotee has ash sprinkled on her head during Ash Wednesday rites in Manila’s Paranaque, Philippines. Sprinkling ash on the head of devotees, instead of using it to mark foreheads with a cross, is one strategy to avoid physical contact during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)

(RNS) — Ash Wednesday is one of the touchiest observances on the liturgical calendar — literally.

Many churches mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent with the imposition of ashes. Clergy smear ashes, usually those left after burning palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations, onto congregants’ foreheads, often in the shape of a cross.

That practice presents a problem when health experts fighting COVID-19 have advised people to avoid touching their faces or coming in close proximity to others. Some churches haven’t met since the pandemic first upended life…

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