Looking Back

Rethinking Lent in the time of COVID-19

/ 04:06 AM February 26, 2020

One of my classmates said that one should not chew the thin communion wafer because, as the “body of Christ,” it would cause him pain. This classmate said that once placed on the tongue you kneel reverently and wait for it to dissolve and that, mind you, took an eternity for sinners. So to appear holy, many of my classmates struggled to swallow it quickly without chewing. Then some wafers stuck to the roof of the mouth rather than the tongue and that was another sign of a sinful life. In retrospect, I now wonder why we were herded to the chapel each month for confession when boys had no opportunity to commit serious or mortal sins like adultery, murder, robbery, embezzlement, or blasphemy. I guess many of us had to invent something to say to the priest to make the experience worthwhile and that in itself was a small lie.

Ash Wednesday had fake news, too. We compared the black crosses of ash on our foreheads outside the grade school chapel to evaluate the gravity of sin: the bigger and clearer the cross, the bigger the sin. In another life, another time, I was known for drawing the largest, most visible crosses on foreheads as admonition: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” The modern admonition is different from the one I heard in childhood: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Mortality is something alien to a child, more so since longevity is in my genes. I only experienced death in the family at 17 when my grandfather died. I was two years short of a senior citizen card when my father passed away last year at 94, so Ash Wednesday 2020 is a reminder of mortality for me. Over dinner last month, my sister casually gave me a pamphlet on how to prepare for my funeral. I leafed through it and noted that except for a few points, like a notarized will, I have all bases covered. People find it morbid that the slideshow for my wake is ready for viewing. If you don’t prepare the slideshow ahead, your relatives might use unflattering photos, and it is good to be remembered looking happy and at your best.


Ash Wednesday 2020 is a challenge because of COVID-19. In Tokyo, all holy water fonts have been covered up with a polite notice saying this is done to halt the spread of the virus. I would think that if it were not sacrilegious or liturgical, a disinfectant could be mixed with the holy water that is meant to cleanse not just the soul but the body as the faithful enter the church. In Singapore, religious services are temporarily suspended to avoid gathering in crowds and spreading the virus, but today in the Philippines, people will still turn out for Ash Wednesday so the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has issued some guidelines: there will be no Good Friday Veneration of the Cross this year, no touching or kissing of the cross, please. At Mass, no holding hands during the “Our Father,” no handshakes (or kissing?) during the Sign of Peace, Communion taken by the hand is preferred. Installation of protective cloth on confessional grills and the wearing of masks for both priest and penitent are encouraged, and an innovation in the confessional rite is writing your sins on a sheet of paper and handing this to the priest who will read it, grant absolution, and return it “for proper disposal afterwards.”

Pablo David, bishop of Caloocan, has adopted countermeasures in his diocese that are explained in relation to Philippine culture and values. For example, “Instead of taking the hand of the priests or of our elders for a blessing, individuals can ask for the blessing verbally (as in ‘Pa-bless po!’) and receive it verbally as well, such as ‘God bless you!’” Bishop David suggested an alternative physical gesture for asking for a blessing could be bowing before the priest and saying “Pa-bless po!” And the alternative physical gesture for giving the blessing could be a tap on the head of the one asking for a blessing with the back of the hand.


Another innovation will be a return to ancient practice: “We can strew (Tagalog: “budbod”) a pinch of dry ashes on the crown or the top of their heads [“puyo”]. Bishop David stressed that more important than ashes is saving money from fasting and acts of penance and donating this to charity. If there is one good thing that came from the fear of COVID-19, it is a rethinking of Lent and mortality.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, COVID-19, Lent, Looking Back, nCoV, novel coronavirus
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