Lent for Newbies

Not long ago, a nice lady wrote me saying

We are both Protestants but are searching out Catholicism, just to give you a quick back ground.  There is not much out there for us on practical implications of these different Church Seasons.  So my question is this: how do we bring this time to life for our kids?

I can empathize.  Christmas is easy to celebrate in ways that are fun, spiritually nourishing, and downright tasty for kids.  It's a holiday chockablock with song, sugar, and games.  But it's tough to say, "Gather round, everybody!  It's time to fast and contemplate our mortality!"  Still, there's lots of stuff out there on ways to observe the different sorts of sacred time, including Lent.

During the Lenten season, the best guide is probably to focus on the normal activities at a healthy Catholic parish.  Just as Christmas recalls the birth of Christ, so Lent recalls His time in the desert, fasting and preparing for His mission of death and resurrection.  In the same way, we are to enter into a time of preparation for the Easter mysteries through the three great means of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  The idea is greater detachment from the world, the flesh, and the devil and greater attachment to God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God, being generous, is pleased by the smallest movements of the will in His direction and will honor whatever you do toward that.  For the newbie, there are a number of traditional things that can be done with the family.

 For instance, in the prayer department, many parishes do a simple communal meal on Fridays and listen to a Lenten reading or meditation.  If you are exploring the Rosary, Lent is a good time to give that a shot.  Try Amy Welborn's book Praying the Rosary (OSV) or The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries (Charis) by Edward P. Sri.  In addition, you can explore things like the Stations of the Cross (don't forget the new 15th Station: the Resurrection!) or, if you like, something more creative.  One man I know set up an anonymous blog devoted entirely to praying for political candidates to repent of their support of abortion.  Parents might want to give a shot at, for instance, getting some roses in a vase and, when somebody in the family prays, does a good work or repents a sin, removing a thorn and throwing it away till the roses are all thornless.

To get the hang of fasting, stick with the (very easy) guidelines of the American bishops, which are as follows:

1) Abstinence on all the Fridays of Lent, and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  No meat may be eaten on days of abstinence.

Catholics 14 years and older are bound to abstain from meat.  Invalids, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempt.

2) Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Fasting means having only one full meal to maintain one's strength.  Two smaller, meatless and penitential meals are permitted according to one's needs, but they should not together equal the one full meal.  Eating solid foods between meals is not permitted.

Catholics from 18 through 59 are bound to fast.  Again, invalids, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempt.

The idea behind fasting is not punishment but sacrifice (as in "Offer your body a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual worship").  This, along with virtually the whole Lenten program, is laid out in the opening verses of Romans 12: an offering of body, mind, and spirit.  If you want to offer spiritual worship, says Paul, offer your body and be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  When we offer our bodies (and what is more bodily than our appetite?) we are offering ourselves, including our spirits, to God.

Finally, when it comes to almsgiving, there are things like "rice bowls" where you throw your change through Lent and then send it off to the poor.  Lent is a good time to talk with your kids about tithing.  Of course, there are other forms of almsgiving than money, such as time and talent.  One common Catholic custom is "giving up" something for Lent.  Our family has basically given up sugar for Lent, which is both a sacrifice and something we've been needing to do.  But here again, creativity is encouraged.  Some families fast from TV, others "give up" their normal Sundays to go work in a soup kitchen.

That is probably enough to get your toes wet.  Lent is a spare time, but not a barren one.  It is tonic, not sad.  Indeed, right in the middle of Lent, on Laetare Sunday, the priest is bidden to wear rose vestments to remind us that Lent is a joyful time, because the whole point is Easter.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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