Ash Wednesday and Lent are officially upon us! Doesn’t it seem like Christmas was just last week?
By now, you may have noticed many Destined Lessons are themed around a particular holiday or event in the Church’s life. We have learned about several important Marian feasts (Our lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Guadalupe), All Saints and All Souls Days, Advent and Christmas, Vocations Awareness Week, and most recently, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas. Finally, we’ve also looked at some secular holidays (holidays that are not official Church celebrations) such as Thanksgiving, and Martin Luther King Jr. day.
If Heaven is what we are destined for, we can think of these feasts and holy days as the mile markers and landmarks along our journey. This lesson is going to focus on another of these special landmarks – Ash Wednesday. We will learn where the ashes come from, what they represent, where we find ashes in the Bible, and how to distribute ashes at home.
Introduction Video and Opening Prayer
Note: Parents of young children, especially those with children still learning to read, are welcome to summarize and adapt lesson texts rather than reading them verbatim. Feel free to creatively adapt, supplement, and/or omit certain lesson materials to better meet your children’s educational level. The end of this section has specific recommendations for how this can be done.
Getting to Know the Basics: What is Ash Wednesday?
Before you begin this lesson, test your knowledge of Ash Wednesday to see what you already know. Don’t worry if you get some answers wrong; this lesson will help you with any questions you have.
So, how did the quiz go? Are you an Ash Wednesday veteran or an eager rookie? Either way this lesson is for you! If you ask Catholics, many will tell you Ash Wednesday is one of their favorite days of the liturgical year. Before we go any further, let’s take a look at what that phrase “liturgical year” means.
The Church year does not exactly follow the normal calendar year (although the Church did invent the modern calendar – we’ll talk more about that in the next lesson!) The Church year, also known as the liturgical year, begins with Advent and ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King. Having the calendar organized this way is packed with symbolism. By going through the various feasts each year in this order, we are able to relive the story of salvation history – the story of how God has saved us!
Here is an excellent overview of what each season celebrates. Do you notice how the seasons follow the story of the Bible more or less chronologically?
Advent reminds us of all the years humanity spent waiting for Jesus to be born and Christmas celebrates his birth. Ordinary Time teaches us about Christ’s ministry. Lent prepares us for Jesus’ Passion. The Triduum and Easter form the climax of the story, where Jesus defeats sin and death through his death and resurrection. We then learn about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the ministry of the Apostles, and the modern day Church. Finally, at the end of the year, we are reminded of Christ’s promise to return through the Feast of Christ the King.
So what is Ash Wednesday? It is the day that begins the season of Lent. We mark ourselves with ashes to remind us to repent ahead of Easter. Ash Wednesday literally gives us a sign of what is to come – Christ’s death on the Cross and his Resurrection at Easter. For those of us on our Destined journey, we couldn’t ask for a better landmark than that!
Have you ever wondered why we rub ashes on our forehead? What purpose do they serve, what do they symbolize?
Ashes appear over and over again in the Bible as a symbol of repentance. Putting on clothing made of sackcloth (imagine the world’s itchiest sweater) and marking yourself with ashes was a way of showing profound sorrow for the sins of oneself or one’s nation.
Ashes appear in the Bible in it’s very first book – the Book of Genesis. At Ash Wednesday Mass, there are two phrases that may be said when receiving our ashes “Repent, and Believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This second phrase is referring, in part, to the way God made Adam. God formed Adam out of mud, or dirt from the ground (the exact word changes depending on which Bible translation you are using.) Ashes, which look like dust or dirt, remind us that we were made by God and will someday die – returning to dust, but also going home to God.
Ashes were also an important part of ancient Jewish rituals. Before Jesus was born, if someone sinned, a sacrifice had to be made to God in order for the sin to be forgiven. This was done was by having the priests burn certain animals or grain products as an offering to God. This was known as a sin offering. The ashes from these offerings were then mixed with water and used in other purification rituals. Think of it as an early form of Holy Water.
Nowadays, we do not need to offer these sorts of sacrifices to have our sins forgiven. That is because Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a perfect sacrifice that takes away all of our sins!
Now that we better understand why ashes were associated with repenting from sins and were seen as a symbol of humility, let’s look at a famous story involving ashes. You will notice that this story also has many connections to the way modern-day Christians observe Ash Wednesday and Lent!
The Story of Jonah
Jonah and the whale is one of the Bible’s most famous stories. If you have never read it, you should give it a try, it’s very short! Our elementary school students can find it in their Catholic Children’s Bibles on pages 1396-1401 The story itself is only about two pages long. The rest of the pages are pictures, background, and explanation. Older students can use their bible’s table of contents to find the book in their particular bible.
Watch the video below to get the big picture story:
When Jonah finally listened to God and went to Nineveh, he told them God’s message and they repented of their sins. When the King of Nineveh heard his city would be destroyed in 40 days if they did not repent, he put on sackcloth and ashes and ordered the entire city to fast.
This is where the connection to Lent and Ash Wednesday comes in: Lent is a fast that lasts about 40 days and begins with wearing ashes. The Ninevites may or may not have fasted that long (their fast was very intense – no food or water!) but the story should still remind us of what we do today. We spend Lent fasting from certain things, praying, and giving alms in order to show sorrow for our sins. At the end of that fast, we remember and celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection.
Can you guess one final bit of symbolism in Johan’s story? Do you remember how long he was in the belly of the fish? Three days. And on what day did Christ rise from the dead? The third day!
How Should We Fast?
At this point, we know what ashes represent and we know fasting is important, but there is still a question to be answered: “How do Catholics fast during Lent?”
For starters, we don’t have to do what the Ninevites did- you should still eat food and drink water! At its most basic level, fasting means to give something up for a larger purpose. One way we can fast during Lent is to give something up in order to grow closer to God. Remember, if we give something up, it is because we think doing so will help us grow closer to God, not just for the sake of giving something up.
Below, is a great explanation of why giving things up can help us grow closer to God:
There are two days during the liturgical year where Catholics are called to practice a more strict fast: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The instructions for those days are explained below:
As you can see, Fridays during Lent are also days where we should abstain from meat. While Catholics under the age of 14 are not required to abstain on Fridays, it is certainly a beneficial family practice to do so anyway, if appropriate! Growing up, I always looked forward to Fridays in Lent, when my Mom would make mac and cheese or some other special treat.
Bringing It All Together
Because there was a lot of information in this section, the following are recommendations regarding what information different age groups can focus on:
Take some time to review the lesson before presenting it to your children. Skim through the material and think of ways you could relate it to your unique family.
Children Below First Communion Age:
At this age, children are still learning the basics of the Catholic faith. This may be the first Ash Wednesday and Lent they are old enough to remember. Have them watch the videos and explore the illustrations. Briefly summarize key points to them. Have them try to answer the following questions:
1.) What makes Lent special? (We’re getting ready for Easter.)
2.) What is special about Ash Wednesday? (We receive ashes on our foreheads in the shape of a cross.)
3.) Why do we put ashes on our heads? (It shows we are sorry for what we have done wrong.)
4.) Who was Jonah? (A man from the Bible who was swallowed by a fish, but escaped and finished what God told him to do.)
Children in this age range should be able to describe the basic structure of the liturgical year. They should be able to give an example of what ashes symbolize and describe where the ashes come from. Make sure they are familiar with the traditional Lenten observances (Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving).
Below are some good discussion questions for children in this age range:
1.) Why do we fast during Lent?
2.) What is your favorite part of Ash Wednesday?
3.) What do you want to do for Lent this year?
4.) What did you learn from the story of Jonah?
By this age, children should be able to reflect on their own experience of Lent and Ash Wednesday. What do they like or not like about it? What does Lent mean to them? Additionally, because they have experienced the cycle of the liturgical year more times than someone younger, they should be able to explain the order of the seasons and what each celebrates.
Below are several discussion questions for children in this age range:
1.) How does receiving ashes each year make you feel? Why?
2.) How can you grow closer to God this year during Lent? Describe how your specific Lenten disciplines will bring you closer to God.
3.) Why are ashes used as a symbol of repentance? What are some other symbols associated with Lent?
Let Us Pray
Ash Wednesday is going to look a lot different this year at our parish, however that gives us a unique opportunity. Our parish will not be distributing ashes during Mass this year. Rather, families will be given ashes to take home and impose on each other’s foreheads
This lesson’s prayer activity is to attend Mass or watch the livestream and then impose the ashes on each other’s foreheads. Our parish’s instructions for how to do so are available below:
Once you are done, take a picture of everyone with their ashes and share it in the comments! (Please note: We are aware that some families choose not to post pictures of themselves online due to privacy reasons. If that is your family’s practice, you do not need to share a picture of yourselves, you may simply leave a comment on the lesson instead.)
Live It Out Activities
Open your Destined Journal to the next two side-by-side blank pages. At the top of the left-hand page, write “The _______ Family’s Lenten Journey”. Then divide each page into 3 equal parts. Label each part prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. On the left hand page, write ideas your family has for how you can fulfill each practice during Lent. On the right hand page, draw examples of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
If you liked my joke about chalk dust in the opening video, you will love this activity!
During Lent, the Church does not say “Alleluia” (read why here.) The following activity is a simple and fun way to teach children about this yearly tradition: https://www.catholicicing.com/bury-alleluia-activity-for-lent-through/
More to Explore
Because this lesson was a bit longer, there was no featured saint section required for families. However, if you would like to continue exploring the saints, check out the following video on St. Valentine. Not much is known about him and there are many competing legends, however this video does a good job of identifying some common themes.