Welcoming Children into Ash Wednesday

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In my city, several congregations typically join together for an annual Ash Wednesday service. Last year our church began a weekly Wednesday children’s ministry, and when Ash Wednesday rolled around, we just canceled that night and invited the kids to join us at the community service. The service had a different time and location, however, and I think only one child showed up. We missed an opportunity, and I determined not to make that mistake again. So, this year I volunteered to host the town service, emphasizing that children are welcome.

I believe Ash Wednesday is for children. First, because every Christian worship service is first and foremost for children; “it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs,” says Jesus (Mark 10:14). Unless we adults change and become like children, we won’t enter the kingdom; and if we welcome children in Jesus’ name, we welcome Jesus (Matthew 18:3–5). That’s not a mission statement I see emblazoned on too many church walls or denominational websites. But if ever there was a time for the whole church to face this fundamental need for change and humility, as we “rend our hearts and not our garments” and “repent and believe the good news,” it’s Ash Wednesday.

Second, Ash Wednesday is one of those rare opportunities when we have no recourse but to preach the gospel through action and symbol, and action and symbol are children’s native language. (So, too, our own—though we’ve gnostically forgotten our mother tongue.) Maundy Thursday services often forego footwashing; Good Friday services might highlight preaching seven last words instead of tenebrae candles; even baptism services might privilege video testimonies as more important than the generous use of water; but Ash Wednesday services simply must include ashes and foreheads. Here, in necessary actions and symbols, is a chance for children (and adults!) to slip past watchful dragons to the mystery of a passionate God seeking and saving lost and broken mortals.

While ashes and foreheads are central to Ash Wednesday, however, some translation might be necessary to make the service accessible for children. Here are some of our plans for a kid-friendly Ash Wednesday service this year:

First, though the pews may be full of adults from various churches, we’ll invite the children to sit up front. This will enable them to see and hear more easily.

Second, we have plans for the children to participate in worship in concrete ways. We’ll have the children read Scripture and recite some of the verses they’ve memorized—like Romans 3:23, 6:23, Ecclesiastes 7:20, or Jeremiah 17:9. We plan to have them sing, as a choir anthem, the words of Psalm 51:10–12, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (We also hope to have them sing this as a call to worship during each Sunday in Lent.)

Third, our teaching will emphasize storytelling and object lessons. We’ll retell the story of our creation and fall, of life and death choices ending in “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We’ll light a match and see how quickly it turns to ash. We’ll hold up a palm branch from last Palm Sunday, and share the transition from joy at Jesus’ arrival to sorrow at his death; we’ll remember that he came to the city not to be praised by palms, but to suffer and die for our sins. We’ll recall that we are like grass, which the wind blows away— sinners in need of forgiveness, mortals in need of resurrection, dust desperately longing for Spirit-breath to give us life.

Fourth, we’ll treat this service as if it’s a new experience for everyone. We’ll explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We don’t want to reduce the mystery of the service, but we want to help people enter that mystery; interpretation is an act of welcome. We aim to include some brief words of explanation in the bulletin or as a handout, to help parents continue to interpret the service for their children at home.

Fifth, we’ll try to be sensitive to the strangeness of the service. Physical sensations—like having a cross drawn in ash on your forehead—can be extremely powerful, but also profoundly uncomfortable. And children, who often appreciate those physical elements more than adults, may also be distressed by them. So, we’ll invite everyone to receive ashes on their hands, if they prefer, rather than their foreheads; and we’ll give permission not to participate if they choose not to. I’m also considering placing the baptismal font by the entrance to the sanctuary. If those uncomfortable with the ashes wish to wash them off as they leave, they can do so in the baptismal waters.

Being intentional about welcoming children will help adults become like children. It’s to such as these the kingdom of God belongs.

Image attribution: snowflock / Thinkstock

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Brian pastors Fourth United Methodist Church in Millville, New Jersey. He and his wife Jan have three young children. He's studied Scripture at Asbury Seminary, Princeton Seminary, and Boston College.

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