The Christian period of penitence, Lent, begins this week with Ash Wednesday on February 17. These are the six weeks before Easter Sunday on Holy Week. Ash Wednesday is named from the rite of placing ashes on the foreheads of participants with the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ashes are ceremonially placed on the heads of Christians on Ash Wednesday either by being sprinkled over their heads or, more often, by being marked on their foreheads in a cross. On Ash Wednesday, the Pope, bishop of Rome, traditionally takes part in a procession from the Church of Saint Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina where, in accordance with the custom in Italy and many other countries, ashes are sprinkled on the head rather than marked on the forehead
The tradition in the Philippines has been to mark the forehead with ashes but last year, because of the pandemic and the need to avoid contact between persons, the Church called for the sprinkling of ashes on the head on Ash Wednesday. “The protocols observed previously, I think, will still remain,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said, “so sprinkling of ashes on the head will continue this Ash Wednesday.”
Because of these same restrictions, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila is allowing families this year to celebrate Ash Wednesday at home. Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, said the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission has prepared for the celebration by burning of the leaves of palms or other leaves.
In Caloocan, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said his priests will distribute ashes to those who cannot physically attend Mass on Ash Wednesday. “They can follow the Mass through live-streaming and impose the ashes on themselves while it is being done in the parish church,” he said.
The elderly and the young are still not allowed to leave their homes because of the pandemic. Churches in Metro Manila and other areas have long been limited to 30 percent capacity under General Community Quarantine (GCQ) although this will be eased to 50 percent starting February 15. Thus we will observe Ash Wednesday under many of the restrictions which were imposed nearly a year ago, on March 15.
This has been a thoroughly different year for celebrations of holidays, starting with Holy Week in 2020 when the ban on mass gatherings cancelled the traditional Visita Iglesia, community fiestas in honor of saints throughout the year, the huge celebrations of Sinulog, Ati-Atihan, Dinagyang, Pahiyas, and Panagbenga, the Undas in November, the Traslacion and the Sto Nino festivals in January, and now back to Lent this month.
With the start of mass vaccinations, will these traditional celebrations be back this year? Or do we face more months of restrictions on mass gatherings because the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much a danger here and around the world?
Whatever happens these coming months, we can take comfort in the thought that despite all the restrictions, Filipinos remain strong and steady in their faith. They may not be able to go to church on Ash Wednesday to have their foreheads marked with ashes, but their faith remains strong. They will not only survive with this faith; they will overcome and endure.