There is no general canonical permission for lay people to bless or distribute ashes. However, the unavailability of a priest may make it necessary to hold a service of ashes led by a lay person.
Ashes may be distributed within Mass (following the rite in the Missal which comes after the homily; the Penitential Rite is omitted) or separately from Mass (preferably preceded by readings).
Ashes can usually be obtained free or at minimal cost from church suppliers (often free if ordered with other items). But note that they will usually not send ashes through the post because of terrorist concerns about powders in the mail.
A very small quantity of ash goes a very long way. Mixing a very small quantity of water into the ash helps them to adhere to the forehead.
The Service of Ashes outside Mass has the following pattern:
- Opening hymn
- Greeting (In the name of the Father ...)
- Opening Prayer
- First Reading (Joel 12:2-18)
- Psalm (Psalm 50:3-6, 12-14, 17 R/. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned.)
- Second Reading (2 Corinthians 2:20 - 6:2)
- Gospel Acclamation (no Alleluia as Lent has begun)
- Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
- Blessing of Ashes
- Giving of Ashes (with hymn or instrumental music during distribution)
- Bidding Prayers
- Blessing and Dismissal
In school, it may be better to use just one or two readings.
The following is offered as an alternative prayer for asking God's blessing and which may be better suited for use with children and young people:
we gather in your presence on this Ash Wednesday,
to seek your forgiveness
and to ask your help in living our lives better.
For the times when we have failed to love. Have mercy, Lord.
For the times when we have not noticed the needs of others. Have mercy, Lord.
For the times when we have refused to forgive. Have mercy, Lord.
These ashes are a sign of our repentance.
Bless them, Lord,
and make them a sign to the world of our desire to change,
and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, your Son.
Alternative readings for Ash Wednesday
Tobit 4:16-17, 19-20 (Give your bread to those who are hungry and your clothes to those who are naked)
Ephesians 4:29-32 (Do not use harmful words . . . be kind and tender-hearted and forgive one another)
Resources for the season of Lent
Ash Wednesday Explained in 2-Minutes (film for assemblies or RE classes)