Many of us have heard this question when we arrive at school, work, or home with the blackened cross on our forehead. The observance of Ash Wednesday is the most popular weekday celebration in the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. During the celebration, children and adults process to the altar to receive ashes on their forehead in the shape of a cross. Ash Wednesday is also a day when people discover how many Catholics there are in their community. This can nurture in children a greater sense of religious community. And because receiving the ashes is a sign of humility and contrition, children will also see how many people recognize the need for repentance.
Ash Wednesday is always the first Wednesday of the Lenten season and marks the beginning of Lent. The distribution of blessed ashes is typically done before the altar and, depending on the custom of the parish, people will hear the distributor say, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” or “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” The atmosphere in the Church is quiet and the observance solemn. People reflect on how quickly human life can pass. All are reminded of the need for repentance.
The readings for Ash Wednesday offer a number of important images that help children understand the meaning of this experience. The first reading calls us to repentance but also emphasizes that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in kindness (Joel 2:13). In the second reading, Paul reminds us that the world sees the presence of Christ in the way we act. So, be reconciled to God today! (2 Corinthians 5:20—6:1). We are called to be the love and change we wish to see in the world. In the third reading, Jesus reminds us that the sacrifices and prayers called for in Lent are between God and us. It is insincere for us to show off contrite actions to win the praise of others—let others only see how our sacrifices and prayers help us love them.
Ash Wednesday begins a wonderful season of reflection and preparation. Receiving the ashes as a member of the church community helps children recognize that they are an important part of the Catholic community and are united with the Church in its Lenten preparation.