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Ash Wednesday observance has slight modifications

GREATER WESTFIELD-As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast a shadow on traditional customs celebrated by the masses – local church leaders are stepping up to offer unique ways for area residents to mark Ash Wednesday on Feb. 17.

“Ash Wednesday is the day of penitence in the Christian faith that begins the season of Lent,” said Rev. Julie G. Olmsted, interim minister/life coach for First Congregational Church in Westfield and Southwick Congregational Church.

Olmsted explained that Lent is the season that precedes Holy Week and Easter, the word “Lent” being Old English, meaning “to lengthen,” as in, the days get longer.

“There is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible but there are plenty of references to ashes in relation to repentance, which simply means to turn around,” said Olmsted.

Olmsted added that in the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament – Job repents in “dust and ashes,” as well as in other places like Esther, Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

“Christians, or anyone, really, receive the sign of the cross on either their hand or forehead, signifying mortality and acknowledging sinfulness,” said Olmsted.

At Southwick Congregational Church, a “Drive-in Ash Wednesday Service” begins at 3 p.m. on Feb. 17, delivered by Olmsted.

“You can drive in and stay in your car, receiving ashes on your hand or forehead from a clean cotton swab,” said Olmsted, adding, “try to remember to bring a piece of paper and pen to write down something in your life that you’d like to ‘let go of’ during the season of Lent.”

A “love offering” will be received as one leaves the parking lot which will benefit the local food pantry.

“In the New Testament book of Romans, Paul says to the church, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” which is to say, every last one of us,” said Olmsted. “So, as I have often said in sermons, to sin doesn’t mean that you are bad; it means that you are human.”

For more information, call the church office weekdays at (413) 569-6362.

“Blessing to all during this holy season,” said Olmsted. “May you stay safe, keep distance, and draw closer to God.”

Also in Southwick, Pastor Jeff King of Christ Lutheran Church said a traditional Ash Wednesday service will take place at 7 p.m. with special music provided by the choir.

“Because of the pandemic, we will observe safety protocols and social distancing, as we do for our five regularly scheduled weekly worship celebrations,” said King. “The sign of the cross, placed on the forehead with ashes, will be offered to all who attend.”

King added that special precautions will be taken to limit physical contact.

At Our Lady of the Lake Church, a Mass on Ash Wednesday is planned at 8:30 a.m. with Father Matthew Guidi, according to Kim Rood, parish administrative assistant.

“A Liturgy of the Word Service (not Mass) is at 3 p.m. with Deacon Dave, and ashes will be ‘sprinkled’ at both times,” she said.

In Westfield, several church leaders are also amending their plans for Ash Wednesday.

Rev. Bruce Arbour of First United Methodist Church noted a virtual service is planned at 7 p.m. on its Facebook Live page. The link can be found at

“We are not distributing ashes due to the high COVID status of Westfield and surrounding communities,” said Arbour.

Rev. Fr. Valentine Nworah, parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish, said to ensure everyone’s safety, Ash Wednesday masses are planned at 8 a.m., 3:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.

“Not much will be changing with regards to the celebration of Ash Wednesday this year, other than the manner with which the ashes will be administered to penitent Catholics,” said Nworah, noting the reason is due to the pandemic.

“Recently, the Holy See (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) in its ‘Note on Ash Wednesday,’ modified the method of distributing the ashes,” said Nworah. “Instead of the customary way of placing ashes on the penitent’s forehead in the form of a cross while saying one of the penitential formulas, priests are asked to sprinkle ashes on the penitent’s head without saying anything. Because after blessing the ashes, we are asked to address the people once using the proper formula before sprinkling the ashes in silence.”

Nworah said this new instruction might seem new and confusing to many.

“We remind ourselves that this new practice is in conformity with the sacred scriptures,” he said. “In 2 Samuel 13:19, ‘Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her long-sleeved garment which was on her; and she put her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.’”

Rev. René L. Parent, M.S., at Holy Trinity Church, shared a similar sentiment.

“We do not have any special plans other than the distribution will be done by sprinkling them on the recipient’s head rather than by a sign of the cross on the forehead to minimize the necessity of physical contact during this time of pandemic,” said Parent.

At the Episcopal Church of the Atonement, one Ash Wednesday service on Zoom and Facebook Live will be observed at 6:30 p.m. For persons wishing to join Zoom, contact Rector, Mother Nancy Webb Stroud at [email protected] to receive the sign-in information, or go to

“We are also offering Lent take-home bags for children and for adults, with stories, activities, and prayers for Ash Wednesday and Lent,” said Webb Stroud. 

For persons interested in the take-home bags, contact Webb Stroud to make arrangements to pick up the materials.

“We are also pleased to announce that our Sunday service can now be found on Channel 15 in Westfield,” said Webb Stroud. “Look for us at 3 p.m. every Sunday, or join us in real time at 10 a.m. on YouTube and Facebook.”

The ladies group WinGs – Women in God’s Service – has put together Lenten bags, according to Rev. David Riley of St. John’s Lutheran Church.

“These bags are being delivered to members to give them a greater spiritual appreciation for the holy season of Lent,” said Riley. “We will be having mid-week services in our sanctuary for members who feel comfortable attending.”

Riley added that the health and safety guidelines issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for Places of Worship will remain in effect at St. John’s.

“We will also be posting our services on our YouTube Channel,” he said.

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