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Ash Wednesday Observance with Children

by Carolyn Brown

reposted with her permission from

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.

+ 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 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.

+ 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 prayers, 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.

+ 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.

+ 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 last year, worshipers of all ages painted this one during the Ash Wednesday service.

+ In Sharing the Easter Faith With Children Carolyn Brown offers detailed plans for two 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.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

This text can frighten children with its threat of God punishing people. Isaiah’s message (below) with its call to change your ways is complicated, but gives children a way to respond other than simply be frightened.

Isaiah 58:1-12

+ 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.

+ 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. 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

  1. Fast from _________________________________________

  2. And feast on_________________________________

  3. _____________________________________

(Your name)


Psalm 51:1-17

+ King David arranged for a man to be killed in battle (accidentally 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?

+ 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.

+ 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

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

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.

Learn more from Carolyn Brown at:


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