This is particularly true on Ash Wednesday, where an ash cross can be marked on a worshipper’s forehead, or people are invited to confess their sins at the start of Lent. But imagine being a young child – what would all this sin, repentance and abstinence mean to you?
There is great value in involving children in the ceremonies, services and traditions that can form part of our church year. The sight of children and families surrounding the altar at St Paul’s Cathedral while the Bishop of Edmonton conducted the Eucharist was one of the highlights of February’s Messy Cathedral. However, merely involving children isn’t enough. We have to be ready to explain what’s happening to them and why.
The trouble is that most children think in a concrete manner and much of the way we talk about sin and repentance and be quite abstract. However, a bit of reflection can help us to come up with ways to help children explore these ideas and so deepen their faith.
Older children have a strong sense of what’s fair, and what’s right and wrong. You’ll soon see this if you try to cheat at a game! This can be a good way into thinking about what we do wrong and how that might hurt God and spoil our relationship with him. They will be familiar with facing the consequences of what they have done wrong (being told off, grounded or having to apologise). That’s only fair after all, that someone has to pay the price for the things they have done wrong. You can use the idea of Jesus facing these consequences instead of us.
For younger children, who are still learning about what’s right and how they can get along with others, it might be more useful to think in terms of friendships. They will be familiar with arguing and making up with friends, or how it feels when a friend does something that hurts them (either physically or emotionally). God wants to be our friend, but some of the things we do wrong make him sad and harm the friendship we have with him. This idea of reconciliation is a model of the cross that man find useful, and for younger children it can be a good way into Ash Wednesday and Lent.
It’s important to remind children that our friendship with God is not conditional. Indeed, we might need reminding of this ourselves. God doesn’t love us more if we ‘behave’; he doesn’t love us less if we do more things wrong. Our relationship with him is not conditional on good behaviour. Rather, God’s love is the most important thing. He loves us no matter what. Yes, he wants us to be transformed by the Spirit to be more like Jesus, but that transformation comes from a relationship with him, rather than through ticking the boxes of good behaviour.
If you’d like more ideas of how to involve children in observing Lent, then take a look at this article I wrote for the Diocese of London.
ALEX TAYLOR is resources editor for Premier Youth and Children’s Work magazine.