Lent has different feel after a year of austerity brought around by coronavirus pandemic

Lay minister Paul Fontenot, currently serving as the supply pastor of First United Methodist Church of New Iberia, uses a cotton swab to apply ashes to the forehead of a choir member during the church’s Ash Wednesday service. Unlike previous years, the ongoing pandemic has brought a more austere feeling to Lent, an already introspective religious time of year.

Although he has only been serving as the interim minister — known as a “supply pastor” in the Methodist Church — since June, longtime lay minister Paul Fontenot of First United Methodist Church in New Iberia said this year’s Lenten season feels a little different.

“It seems like we have been in Lent since last Lent,” Fontenot chuckled.

Levity aside, there is an argument to be made for Fontenot’s perception. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken much of the contrast out of parishioners’ pre-Lenten lifestyles. Whereas most people in south Louisiana have the final fling of Mardi Gras as a springboard into Lent, that holiday faded this season. Additionally, many of the other excesses that are often abstained from during the 40 days of Lent are already limited, with restaurants, bars and other social outlets already shuttered or limited.

But Fontenot said that the other side of the Lenten season — the inward examination, repentance and thoughtfulness, are still focal points that are even more needed during these trying times.

“In our church, Lent is not only a time to give something up, but also a time for more prayer, for meditation and introspection,” Fontenot said. “We all are sinners — we quickly admit we are — but specific things, we don’t want to think about, like calling ourselves a liar or whatnot. Lent lets us take the time to look at ourselves and look at what areas of our lives are a little bit in need of restoration.”

There are also the physical changes that the pandemic has brought to services, specifically rites such as the spreading of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

“Some churches did not even do that (the placing of ashes on the forehead) this year,” Fontenot said. “For the 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. services both, we had a mix of different religions represented One woman said at her church they would take a pinch of ashes and throw them over them.”

Others were willing to forego some social distancing in exchange for tradition.

“A few folks asked if I could do it with my thumb,” Fontenot said. “So I would use a lot of hand sanitizer.”

The church also provided ashes, created from the burnt palm branches from Palm Sunday in 2020, so those people who wanted to attend the service virtually.

“You could follow along online, put the ashes on at home to do it without leaving the house,” Fontenot said. “We also had little to-go communion cups for those who could not attend.”

Dwayne Fatherree is the community editor for The Daily Iberian. He can be reached at dwayne.fatherree@daily-iberian.com.

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