Millions of Christians observe Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season, while others barely know what it's about. I thought it might be helpful to give a brief description for those who don't understand the purpose of these observances and maybe offer new insight to veterans of this holiday, as well as a craft idea for use in your classrooms.
The word, Lenten, is derived from an old English term for the "lengthening" of days, which occurs in Springtime. Lent is the 40 day period before Easter Sunday, excluding Sundays and a few minor variations in the church calendar. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. On Ash Wednesday ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful in the sign of the cross to remind them of Christ's death, of the sorrow one should feel for his or her sins, and of the necessity of repenting, which is turning from sin and turning to God. Traditionally, the ashes are obtained from burned palm branches from the Palm Sunday of the previous year.
Many people believe the practice of placing ashes on the forehead began in 1091 A.D. by the Roman Catholic church. However, the custom of placing ashes on the head as a sign of repentance dates back to Old Testament times: "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: 'O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.'" Daniel 9:3-5. (See also, Esther 4:1-3, Job 2:8 42:6 and Isaiah 58:5)
Why are there 40 days of Lent?
In the 40 days of Lent believers unite themselves to Jesus when he was tempted in the desert for 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:1-11). "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning" Hebrews 4:15.
Lent is a special time of reflecting in prayer and fasting upon the importance of our redemption and salvation made possible through Christ's suffering on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Many people give up something they enjoy doing or eating during Lent as a constant reminder of how Jesus overcame temptation, and gave up his life for theirs; many people also participate in special service projects during the forty days of Lent.
Ash Wednesday Lesson and Craft
Make a Palm Cross using a palm leaf or green construction paper. If children are too young to make their own crosses, have some prepared before class.
Discuss what it means to sin: (disobeying God's rules with our actions, words, and inward thoughts, missing the mark of being perfect) then have children write their sins on paper crosses (If children are too young to write, have them draw their sins on the crosses. Take crosses outside and place in a fire pit or barbeque grill. Have an adult burn the crosses then stir to cool ashes (make sure children do not get near the fire). While the ashes are being prepared, read 1 John 1:9 and spend time praying and thanking Jesus for dying to forgive our sins and then sing songs of praise. Once the ashes are cooled, collect them and allow children to use the ashes to draw crosses on paper or on their foreheads.
Copyright 2005 Sarah A. Keith
For a devotional on Jesus' temptations, go to the Forty Days in the Wilderness lesson.