Christians throughout the Southland observed Ash Wednesday Wednesday, ushering in the 40-day season of Lent, when the faithful prepare for Easter by doing penance for sins and seeking spiritual renewal through prayer, discipline and good works.

The coronavirus pandemic forced a change in the distribution of ashes at Roman Catholic churches. The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a note describing the process needed to avoid close contact and avoid the spread of the virus.

The note calsd for the priest to say the prayer for blessing the ashes and sprinkle the ashes with holy water, without saying anything. Then he will address all those present and only once say the formula as it appears in the Roman Missal, applying it to all in general: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The priest will then cleanse his hands, put on a face mask and distribute the ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, go to those who are standing in their places. The priest takes the ashes and sprinkles them on the head of each one without saying anything.

Customarily, the priest marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross and the priest tells individuals as the ashes are applied to their foreheads, “Turn from sin and live the Gospel.”

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of penance.

Catholics observe Ash Wednesday by fasting, abstaining from meat and repenting. Other Christian denominations make fasting optional, with the main focus being on repentance.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles with attendance limited due to the pandemic.

“We enter into Lent for a second year now under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic,” Gomez wrote in his Ash Wednesday message.

“Since last Lent, we have seen our lives disrupted and disordered by this deadly disease. Our faith has been tried and tested in many ways. My prayer this year is that we will make this Lent a time to renew our trust in the Lord, to strengthen our confidence in God’s personal love for each one of us.”

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