youth and the ash wednesday tradition

youth and the ash wednesday tradition
As often as I hold up the church year and the seasons it includes, eventually I face the “What do you mean ‘we’re right in the middle of ____’ on the church calendar?” In Lent, it usually happens at the beginning. “What is Ash Wednesday?” Or more to the point, “Why do we put ashes on our foreheads?”

I live and work in a particularly Baptist corner of Baptistland, GA. Most of our youth group’s friends are unfamiliar with most of our traditions and expressions, which leads to a lot of confusion about baptism, salvation, and communion, to name a few. Ash Wednesday sits as perhaps the cutest inconsistency between us and their friends, an adorable little practice that doesn’t threaten anyone’s core beliefs. So this year instead of just reiterating the tradition and some of the why & how of Ash Wednesday and Lent, I thought I’d make them try to come up with a similar tradition of their own.

This worked well and I encourage you to try it this Wednesday if you’ve got a mid-week opportunity to gather your kids (or it will work just as well this weekend). Divide into whatever works as small groups for your crew, then task them with this:

1. Come up with a physical, non-verbal thing that you could wear or do that would tell someone from a distance that you are aware of your own mortality. (That you won’t live forever, for the middle school).

2. Come up with a second physical, non-verbal thing that you could wear or do that would tell someone from a distance that you are repentant. (Sorry for something, middle school.)

3. Finally, come up with a third physical, non-verbal thing that you could wear or do that would tell someone that you are aware that you are forgiven.


I wasn’t with the high school group and must confess that I don’t remember what they came up with. There were Christmas lights involved, but that’s all I’ve got. The middle school boys impressed me, though. For starters, they’d wear a YOLO t-shirt. Good one. Nothing screams awareness of mortality like knowing that we only get this lifetime. For repentance, they said they would carry an “I’M SORRY” doormat with them. If they offend someone, they can lay the mat down between themselves and the offended party, then back away to a safe distance. The offended will arrive at the mat first and become aware that the bearer means to apologize. A little bulky, but still good. Finally, they said when the offended person was within arm’s reach they would give them a hug, expressing their acceptance of the forgiveness being given. This presumes the interaction with the doormat went well, but I’m willing to concede the point.

I think they really got it. So it was easy, then, to turn and refocus their minds on the practice of taking on ashes at the beginning of Lent – ashes are a symbol of mortality, as we eventually return to dust; they are a symbol of repentance, in the ancient tradition of dressing in sackcloth and ashes to humble oneself; finally, they are a reminder that we are forgiven as they are imposed on our foreheads in the shape of a cross.

It’s a beautiful tradition and I hope you involve your kids in whatever your whole congregation does to observe the beginning of Lent. And hopefully the above process will knock any remaining “weird” off of the practice for your youth. If nothing else, mine will get that it makes more sense than carrying around a doormat.



Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flora

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