Churches are rolling out creative ideas this week to observe Ash Wednesday, tweaking a centuries-old tradition to meet the demands of a 21st-century pandemic.

Clergy smudging ashes directly onto foreheads will be rare. Instead, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis will sprinkle ashes atop worshipers' heads, and Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in St. Paul will apply ashes with long cotton swabs to folks sitting inside their cars.

And an Apple Valley church has stuffed ashes into 600 tiny plastic containers that congregants can pick up and administer on their own.

"Across the country, pastors have been sharing how to do this safely," said the Rev. John Nelson of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins. "It's everything from having a few people come into church at scheduled times to mailing out ashes to people in their homes."

He added: "This is a very personal religious ritual that is difficult to do virtually."

For Christians, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a six-week period of reflection and repentance before the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated on Easter. The tradition of dispensing ashes, a symbol of mortality, is typically observed by Catholics, Lutherans and several other mainline Protestants.

But how to get ashes on foreheads without touching people or violating social-distancing rules, at the risk of spreading COVID-19, has been this year's challenge.

The Vatican issued guidelines for Catholics, urging that ashes be sprinkled on the tops of people's heads and that a communal blessing replace individual blessings. Mindful of the health risks, many Catholic churches have arranged for virtual worship services and efficient, in-person ashes.

St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis, for example, is offering three time slots during the day when parishioners may walk or drive to a door and receive the ashes on their heads. They can also view online worship anytime throughout the day.

The Basilica will offer two options: People may attend a service in the church, masked and socially distant, and receive the ashes or they can drive over after the service to get ashes from their cars.

The great outdoors

Most mainline Protestant churches have remained closed since the pandemic exploded last spring. But intrepid congregants may choose to brave this week's arctic blast to participate in a ritual that many find deeply meaningful.

Gustavus Adolphus in St. Paul is hosting a drive-in worship service Wednesday evening in its parking lot, where masked pastors will walk from car to car administering ashes.

They'll use a long cotton swab, to be thrown away after each use, to apply ashes on foreheads or the tops of hands depending on the recipient's preference, said the Rev. John Hierlinger.

"This at least gives us an opportunity to be together," said Hierlinger, "albeit in cars in our parking lot."

Many if not most churches are offering online services. In many cases, members will simply administer the ashes themselves — or ash substitutes.

"Bring your bread, juice and ash-substitute to this intimate and unique worship service!" reads an announcement for worship by Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. "Ash substitutes can include soot from a candle or fireplace, flour, chalk, eye shadow, potting soil, baby powder — anything with a powdery texture."

More meaning this year

Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley decided to offer ashes to go and Lent kits to go to help congregants mark the holy day and season. Staffers bought tiny containers with purple lids — the symbolic color of the Lenten season — and filled them with ashes, then put them inside plastic baggies with a warning: "Ashes can be very messy. You may wish to add some oil to the ashes to help them stick to your forehead/hand."

On a frigid morning Sunday, staffers and volunteers stood outside the church doors, near a fire pit, and handed out the bags to a steady stream of hearty visitors who drove up.

"I think it's a great idea," said Brian Gunther, who pulled up with his daughter Payten. "We get to enjoy Ash Wednesday from the comfort of our home."

Dawnette and Mark Oliver arrived with their dog Joey and a distinct plan for how they'll celebrate this unusual Ash Wednesday. Before dinner, the family will say the prayers and Bible verse suggested in the kit. They'll then make a sign of the cross with the ashes on each other's foreheads, followed by the solemn traditional words: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"It's really nice," Dawnette Oliver said. "This is a chance for our family to feel part of the community because we're all doing the same thing."

The Rev. Dan Haugan of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in St. Paul will oversee two Ash Wednesday services inside the church as well as ash distribution in the parking lot and to students at Holy Spirit School. This year, their teachers will sprinkle ashes on their heads.

The symbolism of Ash Wednesday is particularly meaningful this year, said Haugan. People have lost loved ones and been distanced from so many others.

"Everyone has had a lot of time to reflect on their lives," he said. "It's a very poignant time."