In many liturgical traditions Ash Wednesday is marked by a formal worship service or Mass in which the priest or church leader will make the sign of the cross out of a paste made of ash and sacramental oil on the foreheads of the congregants. Often the ashes are palm fronds that have been burned from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. The purpose of this service is mark the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection.
However, for a wide variety of reasons not everyone can attend one of these service, so here is an idea for anyone who wants to observe Ash Wednesday in their homes, honoring the traditions of repentance and ashes; The Ash Wednesday Backyard Fire.
This is a practice that can be done around a small fire pit in any backyard, on a roof top, on the beach, or on your deck. This is also something that can be done on a bigger scale with a community around a large country bonfire out in the country, or on an even more personal scale around a group of candles or indoor fireplace. The point is not how grand your fire, but instead it is that you make time for the occasion in the first place.
Ash Wednesday Bonfire Activities
Everyone loves to make s’mores and toast marshmallows over an open fire! But have you ever watched a marshmallow burn to a crisp? A marshmallow that has been burned on the outside is still soft and white on the inside, so much softer than it was before. This is a great tactile example of how God uses the “refining fires” of life (various forms—pain, loss, change, love, etc.) to soften our hearts and loosen our grip on the illusion of control. Consider roasting marshmallows to a crisp, explaining this illustration to your kids as you do so.
Burning of Confessions
Step 1: Somewhere near your fire, perhaps on a small table, provide all those in attendance with pencil and paper and with a small sign that prompts each person to write down those things that they would like to confess, to have burned away from their past, that they feel a call to repent of. Make sure to have markers and crayons on hands for children. Have younger children draw out their confessions.
Step 2: Have everyone crumple up and toss their confessions into the fire, or put them on the end of a roasting stick. As they add their confessions to the fire, have each person recite this Psalm:
“God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life” (Psalm 51:10).
Step 3: After everyone has added their confessions to the fire, take time to watch them burn in silence. Once the papers are no longer visible, say to each other “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Step 4: After the fire has cooled, return the ashes to the earth, perhaps in a garden area, where something new will spring from among the ashes.
For more ways to practice faith at home check out Jerusalem’s book A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together.