Other than Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is probably the day on which children are least expected or planned for in the sanctuary. The prophet Joel, however, insists that parents bring their children to the meeting he has called to point out to the whole community that they are sinners. Today, there is much for children to learn from seeing their parents and the leaders of the congregation wearing ashen crosses and even more from wearing ashes themselves. The experience deeply binds them to their faith community.
t The imposition of ashes is amazing to children. They marvel at the sight of adults wearing the ashes. At first they wear their own ashes as a sign that “I am one of them” or “I belong.” Over the years as they hear the language about sin, forgiveness and repentance, they begin to wear them as an admission that “yes, I too am a sinner.” This is not an easy step for those children who are repeatedly told that they are wonderful and capable. It also flies in the face of all the adult insistence that they can make good choices which is often taken to mean “if you try hard enough, you won’t be a sinner.” Sharing in Ash Wednesday worship makes it easier to make the admission that “yes, I too am a sinner” by setting it in the presence of everyone else making the same admission.
We are all first marked with the cross using water (and sometimes oil) at our baptisms. At that time to be marked with the cross is a wonderful thing. We are identified as the loved children of God. On Ash Wednesday we are marked with the cross using ashes and the words, “remember you are dust.” The ashes and words remind us that we are not so wonderful. In fact, we are all sinners. Fortunately, the sign is not an X, marking us as hopeless rejects, but a cross reminding us that God loves and forgives us, sinners though we be.
t For children the ashes themselves remind us of all the horrible things we do to hurt each other. They look like burned buildings. They remind us of all the war pictures we see. And, they remind us of all the ways we make war on each other every day with hitting, name-calling, telling lies about others, and so much more. Write some of these words on a piece of white paper with a finger dipped in the ashes. Try to erase it making a smudgy mess and note that once we start doing those things it is almost impossible to get them cleaned up. It’s a real mess. It leaves its mark on each one of us. Only God can get us out of our mess. On this day we wear ashes to admit that we are messed up sinners, but we make those ashes in the shape of a cross to remind ourselves that God loves and works with us to do better no matter how we mess up.
Avoid the temptation to turn this into an object lesson about only God being able to erase sin. Children will not follow you. Instead leave it as a meditation on how messy we and our sins are.
WARNING: In the Comments recently one reader noted that children often worry that the ashes will be hot and will burn on their forehead. She makes it a practice to show with her hands and to say aloud that the ashes were once hot, but are now quite cool.
t Ash Wednesday can be a good time to revisit the renunciations made at baptism. To give them a visual and physical impact, have them (or an expanded version of them) posed by a worship leader standing at the back of the sanctuary calling worshipers to turn that direction. A worship leader standing at the front then calls worshipers to turn that direction and respond. The script below is my child-friendly paraphrase of renunciations in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship for Ash Wednesday. (I have a note from last year attributing this idea to Liturgy Link, but cannot find the exact reference this year.)
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Leader 1 (from the back of the sanctuary):
Turn to face me. The world is filled with people telling us what to do, with voices calling us to hate and greed and violence and all sorts of sin. As we begin Lent, do you turn your back on all the sin that the world says is OK?
Leader 2 (from the front of the sanctuary):
If so turn to Christ (at the front of the sanctuary) and say “I do.”
Face me and say it again. Do you turn your back on selfishness and greed, on looking out only for yourself and those you love and getting what you want and need?
If so turn to Christ and say “I do.”
Still, do you turn your back on using violence against people we do not like? Do you turn your back on hitting and hurting and name-calling and killing?
If so turn to Christ and say “I do.”
Finally, do you turn your back on anything that keeps you from loving God?
If so turn to Christ. Do you promise to be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love, to your life’s end? If so say “I will with God’s help.”
Let us pray: God, selfishness and greed and violence and so many other evils call to us powerfully. Every day we have to decide not to respond to them, but to be your loving disciples. So, at the beginning of Lent we admit that this is so and promise once more to keep working at turning away from all the evil and toward your great love. Be with us. Love us and guide us and give us your loving power as we keep turning away from sin and toward you and sharing your love with the whole world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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t Create a responsive prayer of confession with the leader offering confessions of sin and the congregation responding to each “Forgive us our sins/trespasses/debts” from the Lord’s Prayer. Before praying point out the response and its place in the Lord’s Prayer which we pray every week. Include confessions about sins children will recognize near the beginning of the prayer e.g.
God, we can be really mean to each other. Even when we don’t plan to we say unkind words, we call people nasty names, we hit, we hurt.
God we want to always tell the truth, but we don’t. When we are caught in something that will get us in trouble, we lie. When we want to pass a test, it is easy to cheat. When we get mad at friends, we tell awful lies about them.
t This year Ash Wednesday falls on Wednesday before Valentine’s Day falls on Sunday (the first Sunday of Lent). That makes it an opportunity to explore the fact that loving is more than cards, candy, and flowers. Those are all nice. But loving means with sticking with each other – even when it is not easy or pleasant. The Year C lectionary texts explore such sacrificial love. So, love could become a Lenten theme for the year. (Go to The Whole Heart Series for Lent 2016 for the details) Or, it could be simply a theme for Ash Wednesday that is linked to Valentine’s Day.
t Feature large red valentine hearts with a black cross drawn on each one. While it would be cool to draw crosses on the hearts with the Ash Wednesday ashes, it is easier, less messy, and lasts longer to draw the crosses with black crayon.
Talk it through: Start with a large red paper heart. Say that the baby Jesus was like God’s valentine telling us that God loves us. God became one of us and lived among us as a baby who grew into a man who talked about God’s love and really loved every person he met. One would think everyone would like Jesus. But, they did not. Jesus’ love made them feel like they should be more loving than they wanted to be. Jesus talked about forgiving love and loving EVERYONE. Enough people got angry enough that they killed Jesus. The totally amazing thing is that Jesus did not get angry. Jesus FORGAVE them. He still loved them. After he rose and was no longer dead, Jesus kept loving them and reached out to them. Draw a large black cross on the red heart and say, "THAT is love!"
Another way to talk it through: Start with the red paper heart. Talk about what we mean when we say “I love you.” Include such meanings as “I think you are pretty/handsome/cool/neat,” “I want to be your friend,” “I am glad I know you,” “I am glad you are my teacher/coach/sister…". Note that it feels great to get and give valentines. Then, talk about what happens as you try to hang on to that valentine love day after day. Imagine what it would take to hold on to that heart if the person you gave it to got sick or broke a bone and needed LOTS of help. Ponder what it takes to hold on to the heart when the person you share it with says or does something mean or hurts your feelings. Finally, draw a large black cross on the heart. Note that real love is not easy. Introduce Lent as a season in which we try to love better. Point to some opportunities for families to work on loving and ways your congregation will explore loving in worship during Lent.
Give children (all worshipers?) a valentine heart with a cross drawn on it to display in their home during Lent to remind them to love others even when it is not easy. You might give the hearts out with the crosses already drawn on them or give out the hearts as you begin the conversation, then invite worshipers to draw a cross on their heart as a way of committing themselves to work on loving during Lent. (Black crayons can be passed around to do this.)
t Give children and all worshipers a simple prayer to pray as they wash their face at the end of this Ash Wednesday. Maybe,
God wash away my sin and
help me live like your child.
+ In spite of their interest in the ashes, for children Ash Wednesday is mainly the beginning of Lent. Lent is for them spring training for disciples. We begin the season admitting to ourselves and others that we are not perfect disciples and are fortunate that God loves and forgives us anyway. We then commit to doing better. When children are offered specific doable disciplines that will help them be better pray-ers, better Bible readers, better at serving others, they respond enthusiastically. Having committed themselves to such disciple training, they come to communion as to the training table. Here they are reminded of God’s love of those who try and do well and also to those who try and do not do as well as they wish.
t Go to Observing Lent and Celebrating Easter in 2016 for Lenten discipline plans for families. Remember that since 6 weeks is forever for children, families may do better with a different discipline for each week of Lent. There is also a prayer challenge and a Lord's Prayer challenge complete with pretzel reminder.
t Many congregations mark the beginning of Lent by changing the paraments and adding special crosses to the sanctuary. It is very appropriate to make these changes on Ash Wednesday. But, if the reality is that many will not be part of the Ash Wednesday service, consider stripping the sanctuary for that day leaving it somber and then adding the Lenten colors and symbols on the first Sunday of Lent when you can call the majority of the congregation to observe Lent.
t Another way to set the sanctuary for Lent is to cover the Table or hang a large banner made of natural burlap that has been painted with black crosses. At Blue Ridge church one year recently, worshipers of all ages painted this one during the Ash Wednesday service.
t There are simple Ash Wednesday hymns that attract children:
Introduce What Wondrous Love Is This by explaining that The Lamb is a nickname for Jesus and noting that we are singing this song for God and for Jesus.
Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley is a good way to commit to Lenten disciplines on Ash Wednesday. (It is also a good choice for the First Sunday of Lent’s story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.)
Lord I Want to be a Christian is another song with which to commit to Lenten disciplines.
Breathe on Me Breath of God includes some phrases children do not recognize, but enough others that are familiar that they can sing the song with understanding and feeling – especially at the beginning of Lent.
In Sharing the Easter Faith With Children I offer detailed plans for 2 Ash Wednesday services. Neither is built on the lectionary readings for the day.
One is a traditional sanctuary service built around the stories of Peter who had to repent frequently. It uses many traditional prayers selected with the presence of children in mind, a call to confession, the imposition of ashes, changing the paraments, introduction of Lenten disciplines, and communion.
The second begins with a pancake supper at which soap crosses are carved or wooden crosses are sanded and rubbed with linseed oil. After supper people follow the tolling handbells to the sanctuary for a short service of stories about picking up crosses and following Jesus.
t Go to Bread not Stones: Remember You Are Dust to read an essay about how important Ash Wednesday can be to children. Don't miss Rebecca's idea in the comments about how to encourage children to come to the service.
Looking for a good story to read during Ash Wednesday?
t The Quarreling Book, by Charlotte Zoltow, is not really about quarreling and might be a perfect story to read on Ash Wednesday. It traces a series of mean things people do to others in response to someone doing something mean to them. After reading the first half of the book pause to note that we all get involved in such spreading meanness AND that we can stop it. Then read the second half of the book in which a series of kind acts reverses the situation. Note that on Ash Wednesday we admit the mean things we do, then during Lent work on making the second half of the book come true each day.
t Balance the harshness of the ashes on the foreheads with one of the children’s classics in which a parent loves a child who is not always good, e.g. Mama Do You Love Me?, Papa Do You Love me?, or Runaway Bunny.
The Texts for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
t This text can frighten children with its threat of God punishing people. Isaiah’s message with its call to change your ways is complicated, but gives children a way to respond other than simply be frightened.
t Incorporate Joel’s trumpet into the call to worship.
Trumpet alarm (not a fanfare)
Leader: Blow the trumpet; sound the alarm on Zion, God’s sacred hill.
Tremble, people of Judah!
The day of the Lord is coming soon.
Come back to the Lord your God.
He is kind and full of mercy;
he is patient and keeps his promise;
he is always ready to forgive and not punish.
Trumpet alarm repeated.
Leader: Blow the trumpet on Mount Zion;
give orders for a fast and call an assembly!
Gather the people together;
prepare them for a sacred meeting;
bring the old people;
gather the children
and the babies too.
Even newly married couples must leave their room and come.
(Joel 2:1, 13b, 16 – Today’s English Version)
t Though this is a complicated passage, when it is explained to children, they respond. Isaiah is saying we don’t need to be sad about the bad things we do. Instead, we need to stop doing those things. We need to change our ways, to repent. Verses 6 and 7 are key. When they are explored and linked to specific Lenten disciplines offered to the congregation, children take them up enthusiastically.
t Introduce fasting as going without something. Point out that frequently it means going without food. Some people plan to go without something they like for the six weeks of Lent, e.g. go without chocolate or sodas or desserts. But Isaiah suggests that we go without some bad habits and cultivate new ones. Isaiah would say to children,
Fast from being greedy, feast on sharing
Fast from telling lies, feast on telling the truth
Fast from hating, feast on loving
Fast from teasing, feast on kind words
Encourage worshipers to make up their own fast - feast challenges and to undertake living by them during Lent. (This is based on a more adult list found at http://seashellseller.blogspot.com/2005/02/ash-wednesday-these-are-notes-for.html ) The worksheet below is one way to present this challenge to children. Urge them to post their papers somewhere in their room at home where they will see it often.
During Lent I will
Fast from _________________________________________
And feast on_________________________________
t King David arranged for a man to be killed in battle (accidently on purpose) so that the King could marry his wife. Adult Bible students will know why David wanted to marry Bathsheba, but the murderous theft of a wife is significant in itself to grab the attention of worshipers of all ages. What do you pray to God after you do that?
Transgression Iniquity Sin Evil Guilty
t Verses 1 - 6 are descriptions of how sinful humans can be. They include lots of unfamiliar “sin” words –transgressions, iniquity, sin, evil, and guilty (NRSV). Write one or more of these words on a large sheet of poster paper in black crayon or dip your fingers in the ash pot and write them as you point them out. Briefly describe all the ways we hurt and sin against each other and God. Specifics help. Name calling, hitting to hurt, cutting someone out, teasing someone to hurt them, and telling a lie or a secret are familiar sins to children. Point out that we don’t like to admit we do these things, but that all of us do. Then note that on this day every year (and perhaps during each Sunday worship service), we take time to be honest with ourselves, with God and with each other about this. We are all sinners.
t Verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me” is an interesting word picture that has to be explored before children can grasp it. The literal picture is both odd and right on target. Children need to be told David did not want God to cut him open and wash off his heart. But, he did want God to help him “clean up his act.” He wanted God to give him a second chance or a fresh start and wanted God to help him do better. He wanted to repent. When we pray this prayer we join David. (Even though we haven’t done anything as bad as having someone killed, we have done lots of other hurtful, sinful things). If you have done the sin words poster, add REPENT in purple marker.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
t For children on Ash Wednesday this is simply a call to repent now. Now, during Lent, is a good time to work on being better disciples. “Just do it!” They will not hear this as the passage is read, but depend on the worship leaders to restate the call in other ways during worship.
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
t This is another “just do it” message. Jesus says we should not make a show out of our Lenten disciplines. We don’t need to tell everyone we know and remind them of how good we are being by doing it. Instead we are to make it between us and God. Talk to God about it. Ask God to help us. Thank God for forgiving us when we fail. Tell God why we are doing it.