This is adapted from a Godly-Play-style homily I gave at an Ash Wednesday Family Eucharist in 2012. In 2023, Lent begins Wednesday, February 22.
Lent is the name we give to the forty days before the great mystery of Easter. Lent means lengthening, because the days are growing longer. It is a time for the color purple, the color of royalty. We are preparing for the coming of a king.
On the Tuesday before Lent begins, Christians all over the world celebrate the end the Epiphany season, which began January 6, when the wise ones, the magi, the kings from far away followed a star in search of a newborn king, Jesus. People celebrate with parades and parties and pancakes. Some people eat King Cake, in honor of the magi, the kings, and the person who finds the Baby, Baby Jesus, in their slice of cake is King or Queen for the day. Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday— is called that because long ago on the night before Lent began, people used up all the fat in their kitchens—milk, butter, eggs, meat—so that during Lent they could come closer to God by not eating those foods.
Some of us still prepare for the coming of our king by fasting—giving up—something. Some of us give up foods we really like—desserts or sodas or vanilla lattes. Then the money that we used to spend on desserts or sodas or lattes can be saved and given to help feed the hungry. Some of us give up television or video games or try to spend less time with our smart phones, and for the forty days of Lent we use that time instead to look for ways to come closer to God.
Some people read the Bible more often in Lent, listening for what God is telling us today. We may pray more often, or at a certain time each day, and when we pray we could light a candle to remind us that Christ is the light of the World, and we are Christ’s light in the world.
We might draw or write our prayers and keep them in a special place, in a journal or a box or even on a calendar to show we are giving all our worries and hopes to God. There are so many ways to pray, and Lent is a good time to try new practices.
Some of us take on doing more of God’s work in the world during Lent: collecting groceries for the food pantry, visiting the lonely, helping people in our neighborhoods or across the ocean. We might use a giving calendar so that we can return God’s blessings to us out into the world, by giving one day a quarter for every bottle of medicine you have in your house, or a nickel every time you turn on the water faucet another day.
Lent is a serious time, a time set apart for thinking, praying, giving thanks and remembering God’s gifts to us so that we might give generously to others.
We call the day Lent begins Ash Wednesday. Long ago, when people wanted God to know they were sorry for what they had done wrong, they asked God’s forgiveness by making a sacrifice—an offering—to be burned on the altar. If people had a lot of money, they offered a lamb to God. If they had just a little money, they offered a bird.
When their sacrifice was all burnt up, all that was left were ashes. Sometimes the people who asked God for forgiveness would wear these ashes on their bodies to show how sorry they felt.
We no longer bring animals to be burned on the altar when we ask God to forgive us. Everything changed when God sent Jesus to live and die as one of us. Whenever we ask God to forgive us, we are forgiven. Whenever we turn toward God, we are embraced.
Our ashes come from the palms we waved almost a year ago at the end of Lent, when we remembered the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey instead of a stallion, still speaking of peace instead of leading a great army, and the people waved palms in celebration, as if they were welcoming a king. We welcome the King of Love. We call that day Palm Sunday—it is the Sunday before Easter. Some of those palms we fold into crosses, and keep in our homes all year until it’s time. It’s time.
At our baptism, we are claimed as God’s beloved children and a cross of oil is made on our foreheads to mark us as Christ’s own forever. The cross of ashes we receive in the very same spot is to remind us that God made us, we belong to God, and God loves us. May we remember who we are and whose we are, each day of this holy Lent, so that our Easter joy will be complete.
Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.
Looking for additional seasonal resources? Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter by Laura Alary is a wonderful book to add to your collection. For older children, youth and adults, Gayle Boss’s Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing is a gorgeously illustrated new book of powerful stories about endangered animals. Illustrated Ministry offers downloadable family devotionals for Lent; the theme of this year’s resource is This is My Body.