One of my most respected spiritual mentors once recounted to me her first experience of choosing not to “do” Lent she was a student, away from home and the strongly enforced parental supervision of Lenten sacrifices and rituals for the first time. Feeling that she had evolved spiritually to the point that it was no longer necessary for her to “give something up” for Lent, she let the liturgical season pass her by with little notice. To this day, she recalls the sense of true loss she felt when Easter Sunday arrived and she recognized her lack of spiritual preparation for the moment of celebrating Christ's resurrection. From that experience, she went on to become a major proponent of Lenten observances and a witness to those around her of the significance and benefit of Lenten fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
Catholic families have a unique and precious opportunity to share with their growing (and grown!) children the beauty and importance of the Lenten Season. By instilling in our children a sense of love and anticipation during Lent, we can overcome any negative stereotypes they may have related to the sacrificial nature of this time of the year. I recently had the occasion to consult with Meredith Gould, author of The Catholic Home and the newly released Come to the Table: A Catholic Passover Seder and sought out her expertise on embracing the Lenten season with our families.
Q: How can we, as parents, share the season of Lent with our children without making them feel that it's something punitive?
A: Like everything else on our liturgical calendar, Lent offers abundant opportunities for catechesis. I say let's start by explaining the difference between penance and punishment. I think it makes sense to do this by discussing the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
First, remember to note that this is a sacrament of healing. Then, consider that this sacrament is as much about consciousness as it is about God's mercy. After all, we have to become aware of the ways we've become disconnected before we can fully return to God' embrace even though the arms of God are always open to embrace us. Awareness requires willingness and focus.
So what does this have to do with Lent?
Like Advent, Lent is a penitential season during which we have yet another opportunity to check our spiritual fitness. During Advent, we recall watchful waiting for the birth of Jesus. During Lent, we contemplate his sacrifice before celebrating his resurrection. Both birth and resurrection are joyous events. How about encouraging children to view all Lenten activities as ways to watch and wait with joyful hope?
Q: What family traditions does your family share during the season of Lent?
A: My family of origin is Jewish! While everyone else was observing Lent, we were preparing for Passover, the holiday celebrating God's liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage. (Read all about it in Exodus! Also in Acts of the Apostles 7:17-36).
The meaning and significance of Passover has changed for me since my baptism. I now view celebrating a Passover seder an essential activity for Catholics! In 1998, I started creating a Passover seder service to help Catholics more fully understand how the Last Supper was a Last Seder. Come to the Table: A Catholic Passover Seder for Holy Week is now available. I'm hoping more Catholics will pay closer attention to Passover, especially on Holy Thursday.
I also have a church family with whom I pray Stations of the Cross on Fridays. At home, I keep a journal focused on the ways I've been inspired by Lenten practices. On Palm Sunday, I follow the Eastern European practice of decorating with pussy willow branches instead of palm fronds. After Palm Sunday, I start messing around with decorative Easter eggs. I prefer découpage! I also start setting out my growing collection of lamb paraphernalia.
Q: How can families reinforce the concept of almsgiving during Lent with young children?
A: Although social justice is a core Catholic value, parishes tend to ramp up social service activities during Lent. Why? Because charitable activities are a suitable substitute when penance cannot be fulfilled through fasting and abstinence. This is a perfect way to involve younger children.
I'm a big advocate of having parents participate in service and justice activities along with their children. Being able to discuss observations and feelings in real time is always more powerful than asking, “How was your visit to the poor people?”
With regard to almsgiving, I suggest parents teach it and good stewardship by asking children to set aside a portion of their allowance for a charity the kids choose. Lent is a great time to either start or enhance this practice with a parental matching fund.
Q: How would you suggest that families emphasize prayer and spirituality during Lent?
A: We're fortunate to have many beautiful and deeply moving prayer practices during Lent: Stations of the Cross on Fridays; and the foot-washing and Veneration of the Cross ceremonies during the Triduum come immediately to mind.
Praying and discussing the Sorrowful Mysteries is certainly one practice families can observe together. Creating table graces that reinforce the lessons of Lent (e.g., love and sacrifice) before and after meals is another.
I'm also a big advocate of providing sensory cues for sacred activities. Something as simple as using purple placemats or playing any of the classic requiem Masses would help create a Lenten atmosphere in the domestic church.
Q: For young children and those who are physically unable to observe Lenten fasts and abstinence, how can parents teach the concept of fasting or sacrifice?
A: Since your children will (hopefully) notice what adults are doing (or not) during Lent, you'll need to create opportunities to discuss these practices. See if you can instill a respect, if not reverence, for the way sacrifice sharpens perceptions on all levels-physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Explore with them the nuances of “giving something up” for Lent. What does this mean to your children? When have they experienced sacrifice? How did that feel? Ask your kids what they might consider setting aside during Lent as a way to think about the great sacrifice Jesus made for us. Try not to laugh out loud if a bedraggled blankie is offered up.
Q: Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share on this topic?
A: How much time and space do you have?!? Even though I've been a Christian for many years, I still find myself engaged in a lot of “simultaneous translation” during Catholic rites and rituals.
During Lent, more than any other time of the year, I'm keenly aware of Jesus' Judaism. I'm fascinated by the way Hebrew scripture and Jewish practice permeated everything Jesus did and said.
During Lent and Easter, the Jewish roots of the Sacraments of Initiation Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation come especially visible to me. My prayer is that my work helps other Catholics understand and embrace our Jewish heritage during Lent and throughout the year.
Meredith Gould, Ph.D., is the author of The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions Feast Days (Doubleday). She's a columnist for Faith & Family Magazine and www.godspy.com. Her newest book, Come to the Table: A Catholic Passover Seder is available via Plowshares Publishing.