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Ash Wednesday for all ages

Mimi, an energetic 7-year-old, sat next to me at Christmas Eve dinner last year and asked, “Do you remember when I came to church and you put those ashes on my head?” I was surprised. Of course I remembered Ash Wednesday, but we had just celebrated one of the most stirring worship services of the liturgical year with multiple choirs, the lighting of candles, the singing of beloved Christmas carols, the star, the baby, the manger. How could the somber, reflective Ash Wednesday service come to mind amidst the breath-taking joy of Christmas?

Ash Wednesday is quickly approaching – February 18th to be exact – and it is one of the church days least likely to draw in young families. Who really wants to talk about sin and mortality and death in the presence of bright-eyed little ones? Yet Ash Wednesday speaks a powerful word to young people and their families. Ash Wednesday is a time when we stand authentically before God and one another, a time when we confess out loud that we do not have it all together, that we cannot achieve perfection no matter how hard we try. We remind each other and ourselves that we are not immortal. The honesty, the authenticity of this service opens up some space for young people to breathe. It proclaims that even while we make mistakes, we are simultaneously loved, valued and forgiven by Almighty God.

Many churches are recognizing the importance of making Ash Wednesday worship a time for families to be together. By its very nature, this service is a meaningful time for youth because it involves a bodily experience: they get up from their seats, they walk forward with adults they love and trust, and they have ashes that they can see and feel placed on their foreheads.

However, truly inviting children and youth into a worship service means rearranging some elements so they are more engaging for little ones and even not-so-little ones. It means using language and liturgy that is understandable and relevant for young ears; it means that we need moments of movement within the service because it’s hard to sit still for a whole hour. The added benefit of child-friendly language is that it can also be inviting for folks who are not church “insiders,” for folks who aren’t as familiar with the strange vocabulary of Presbyterianism.

Many churches have devised creative and engaging ways to invite families to participate in traditional Ash Wednesday worship. Let me share some examples. Ask high school or middle school youth to write a Litany of Repentance with guidance from a trusted adult. What issues, distractions or temptations make them feel separated from God? Use their reflections as a responsive reading for the whole congregation. During the service, involve young children in changing the paraments throughout the sanctuary to purple. This is a great teaching moment everyone. Provide paper, pens and crayons in the pews and have a time for everyone to write or draw personal prayers of confession. When folks come forward to receive ashes, have them leave these prayers in a basket at the foot of the cross.

If you are looking for more ideas, Carolyn C. Brown, a Presbyterian Christian educator, offers some great and helpful ways to engage children and families in her book, “Sharing the Easter Faith with Children.”

Being marked with ashes is something that our children and young people remember. It is a tradition that they grow into, of course, but if we make the space, it is also a tradition that invites them into a community of authenticity and forgiveness today. Shaping a service that is welcoming for all ages reshapes our own worship and can serve as a powerful reminder to all worshippers that we are indeed dust, but God can do amazing things with dust.

Lauren Scharstein

LAUREN WHEELER SCHARSTEIN is the associate pastor for youth and families at The Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair (N.J.). A Columbia Seminary grad, she previously taught in Kenya with the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program.