Annika Gordon for Unsplash

Things have changed. And I don’t mean in the decades since I was a Catholic school student trembling outside a church confessional. In just the past couple years, the virus has altered the way we do things — the way we celebrate, commemorate and engage with one another, and that’s true even for some of the most traditional religious rituals.

For example, Episcopalians in Lake Highlands who so choose will receive the sacred Ash Wednesday forehead smudge and blessing without exiting their vehicles.

The folks at St. James Episcopal say some changes embraced during pandemic lockdowns, also are a way of welcoming more people into the fellowship.

“I think the general sentiment is that the church can meet people where they are and, in doing so, communicate that they have a place here,” church spokesperson Jared Phares says. “You belong, even before normal behavior or personal beliefs are ‘in line.’ Jesus made room for all, and we should too.”

For people of a certain faith, Ash Wednesday is a holy day marking the first of the Lenten season. It’s a day of prayer, fasting and, typically,  attending a mass during which a priest places palm-branch ashes in the shape of the cross on parishioners’ foreheads while reminding them, “You are dust and unto dust you will return.” (For secularists it’s the day your coworker returns from a long lunch break still hungry and with a mysterious mark between his brows.)

St. James parking lot and church photo by Danny Fulgencio

St. James — known for its sprawling fall-time pumpkin patch, gentle green hills and natural playgrounds and cathedral fit for an English countryside — began its Ashes to Go option even before COVID, as a way to better include working families who couldn’t attend a mid-day or evening service, Phares says. He adds that removing the service from the building shows that the work of ministry can happen anywhere.

This Ash Wednesday, tomorrow from 8:30-10 a.m., Rev. Michael Hurst will be in the St. James parking lot imposing ashes onto foreheads of faithful including those who feel “hesitant about returning to worship,” according to the church’s initial announcement.

“What began as a convenient way to kick-off the season of Lent for working families became a model for ministry as we navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Phares notes. “In the season we are currently in, where drive-through communion pick-up was the only way to receive the sacrament in the height of pandemic precautions, faithful members of all ages seem more open to new expressions of these traditions when necessary.”

Ash Wednesday services also will take place inside the church, located at McCree and Audelia, at noon and 7 p.m. Phares tells us that in the Episcopal (and larger Anglican) church, Ash Wednesday is considered a Principle Holy Day required for the church to observe, though members are not required to participate.

In Catholicism, Ash Wednesday is not considered a Holy Day of Observation, meaning members are not obligated to attend mass, although it’s reportedly the biggest attendance day outside of Easter and Christmas.

St. James offers a variety of ways to attend regular and special services. Here’s a schedule.