Ash Wednesday crowds not deterred by snow, freezing temperatures in Oklahoma City
Ash Wednesday was more than a bit different as the pandemic and a winter storm brought some modifications to the Christian observance.
Many Catholic churches had already made changes to traditional portions of their services in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. No crosses made of ashes were to be smudged on the foreheads at Archdiocese of Oklahoma City parishes. Instead, priests planned to sprinkle ashes on the person's head, avoiding person-to-person contact.
Then, snow-packed roadways and the threat of energy blackouts offered more complications.
Nevertheless, the faithful braved the snow and frigid temperatures to attend in-person church services on Wednesday in the Oklahoma City metro area. Several metro area churches drew small but determined crowds for Ash Wednesday services held during the noon hour.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. Christians observing Ash Wednesday typically attend solemn services focusing on the Lenten season, a time leading up to Easter for reflection on Christ's sacrifice and suffering.
During traditional Ash Wednesday services, ashes — from the burning of palm leaves used during Palm Sunday services the previous year — are distributed to churchgoers in a ritual known as the imposition of ashes. Ash Wednesday and Lent are observed particularly in Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist faith communities, although other Christian denominations often participate.
The Rev. Stephen Hamilton, pastor of St. Monica Catholic Church, said seven people attended the 7 a.m. Ash Wednesday Mass at his Edmond church, 2001 N Western. That service typically draws between 75 to 100 people, he said.
The noon-hour service, which typically attracts about 250 people, drew 172 parishioners.
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Hamilton said he was pleased with the turnout and he expected the 6:30 p.m. service to draw the biggest crowd.
"Lent starts no matter what the weather's like and it's great that people know that," he said. "There are obviously limitations to what we can do and it's totally understandable that some folks can't make it, but that such a good showing gets out and wants to be here to inaugurate the start of Lent to really give focus to their spiritual practices for the season, I think is a great thing and makes me really happy to see."
The priest said people seemed to be OK with the changes to the imposition of ashes. He said he had been talking to his parishioners over the last several weeks to explain that the modifications to the ritual were being made because of the pandemic. The changes also were discussed during Wednesday's Mass.
"That way people were ready to do what they needed to do and no one seemed awkward about it. People seemed fine," Hamilton said. "I think they were happy to be able to get ashes, one way or the other.
Ash Wednesday at home
Several metro area church found creative ways to help members participate in the Ash Wednesday observance while viewing the service online.
In Norman, the Rev. Desi Sharp Brumit, senior pastor of Goodrich United Methodist Church, 200 W Hayes, distributed Lent Bags to members of her congregation in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. She said the bags were initially created because church leaders knew some people would feel more comfortable viewing the observance online. The winter storm on Wednesday added another reason for people to stay home and the decision was made to offer the Ash Wednesday service online only.
"This week, the pandemic and the weather presented a creative challenge," Brumit said.
Wednesday evening, church members planned to participate in the Ash Wednesday observance, using ashes mixed with oil that was included in their Lenten bags.
Brumit said the bags also included two nails, a candle and a bracelet made of prayer beads to be used throughout the Lenten season, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, excluding Sundays.
"The nails are to help us remember that we're working our way toward the cross and beyond that, to the resurrection. The candle is to invite the light of Christ into our space," she said.
"I'm very blessed because I have a congregation that's always willing to try new things. I expect a lot of this will stay around even after the pandemic — we'll continue to stay online and continue to creatively connect."