By Msgr. Steven Aguggia
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we do many things — from how we shop to how we work and go to school.
Even the way we worship God has changed as we have had to make changes in the way we behave in church as well as in the liturgy itself, all in an effort to keep people safe and healthy.
Some of the changes in the way we celebrate the liturgy, while perhaps unsettling at first because they are not what we are accustomed to, can also be opportunities for us to examine what we do and why we do it.
Ash Wednesday is fast approaching and this year’s celebration will bring with it some changes. We are not permitted to have physical contact with anyone; therefore, something like imposing ashes on one’s forehead becomes a challenge. This year we will be following an ancient custom in the Church: the imposition of ashes by sprinkling them on one’s head. This is a method widely used in Europe and which will enable us to celebrate this beloved custom in a safe manner this year.
Ashes are a symbol of our desire to repent, to turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel. Perhaps this year, we are offered an opportunity to consider what that really means for us, personally. Maybe no one will see that I have ashes imposed. Perhaps only I, myself, will know and that may present me with the opportunity to understand better what the ashes represent for me personally.
The imposition of ashes itself is just one of the ways that the liturgy has changed. No longer do we turn to our neighbors at Mass and offer an extended hand in a Sign of Peace. What are the other ways I can express my hope of peace, of communion with those around me?
Holy Communion is generally distributed in the hand. This is because there is less chance of accidental physical contact with another person. This is for the protection of everyone, including the minister of Holy Communion. Perhaps it may become an opportunity for me to think about how I receive Holy Communion, my attitude towards the Eucharist, how I participate in the celebration of the Mass and how I show the Lord reverence in His real Presence in the Eucharist.
On Palm Sunday, we are all accustomed to holding our palm branches and having them blessed. Perhaps we normally participate in a procession, honoring Jesus’ triumphal entry into the Holy City. This year, the palms may be left on tables in church. Perhaps we will be invited to take a branch at the end of Mass as we leave.
Can this help me to appreciate the ways that I welcome Jesus into my life? Maybe I can reflect on how my internal desire to welcome Him should better match my external desire to wave a palm branch?
The changes necessitated by the pandemic may be difficult for us to adapt to but, at the same time, they are opportunities for us to grow in our understanding of what we do and why we do it. The liturgy is something we participate in actively, not just as casual bystanders. This means we ought to strive always to understand it more and more.
Maybe, this is a blessing that has come from the changes in the liturgy which may at first make us uncomfortable. Maybe they are a way of God telling us something.
Msgr. Steven Aguggia is the chancellor of the Diocese of Brooklyn and pastor of St. Pancras Parish.