The children at Providence United Methodist preschool wondered why adults were walking around with ash crosses traced on their forehead this time of year.
At the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, many churches offer a traditional Ash Wednesday service to begin the six-week season of reflection and repentance. The ash crosses represent repentance and a witness of Christian faith.
The theological foundations of Ash Wednesday and Lent generally aren’t explained on a preschool level, so the leaders of Providence United Methodist started a children’s Ash Wednesday service three years ago.
“The whole thing occurred rather unexpectedly,” said the Rev. John Fitzgerald, senior pastor of Providence United Methodist Church. After deciding to explain Ash Wednesday to children in a way they could understand, the church invited their families to join them.
The service now is one of only a few of its kind in the nation.
Fitzgerald said he has received calls from all over the U.S. asking for more details about the service, and this year, 12 churches from Washington state to Virginia will hold children’s Ash Wednesday services based on the one at Providence.
For adults, Ash Wednesday is a time to contemplate mortality, repent wrongdoing and believe in the Christian gospel, including Jesus’ death on a cross.
“On a child’s level, death is something very difficult to deal with,” Fitzgerald said. “We don’t even go in that direction.”
Instead, the children’s Ash Wednesday service adds a focus on looking ahead to Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
Otherwise, said Fitzgerald, “we run the danger of them coming away thinking that God is dead,” Fitzgerald said. “What we really want to do is couple that with the cross and resurrection.”
The children’s Ash Wednesday service is about 30 minutes long and is designed for ages 2-4. They sing “Jesus Loves Me” and other children’s Christian songs. Fitzgerald tells the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection using pictures he’s drawn to illustrate children’s services over the years.
He also burns a palm frond saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday tradition to show the children the tradition of creating the ashes from last year’s palms.
All are welcome to receive ashes on their forehead, he said. Instead of saying the traditional “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as he applies the ashes, Fitzgerald tells children, “Remember Jesus, remember the cross.”