Observing Lent in Your Family
by Janet R. Knight
Ash Wednesday, March 5, marks the beginning of the six-week observance of Lent in the church. Lent culminates in the events of Holy Week, leading up to the great exultation of Easter Sunday. Because the mood of Lent itself is somber and introspective — some would even say gloomy — we often wonder how to include children in its observance.
But Lent doesn’t have to be gloomy. Solemn, yes; but not gloomy. And children can do solemn! Perhaps we should ask ourselves why the opportunity to become more Christ-like is often presented as such a gloomy prospect.
It’s true that denial, abstinence, and sacrifice have long been Lenten emphases but not simply for the sake of going without. Rather, these practices are to help us to focus on Christ, to help us to draw closer to Christ, to immerse ourselves in Christian living, to become more Christ-like.
Families with young children can observe the Lenten season as a time when we focus on growing closer to Jesus. For very young children, one of the best ways to talk about Jesus is Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:3-5, 14-16; Luke 15:4-6). For school-age children, families can focus on the Gospel readings about Jesus, such as Mark 9:1-5; Mark 8:31-38 or 9:2-9; John 2:13-22; John 3:14-21; John 12:20-33; Mark 11:1-11. (If your church follows the lectionary, follow the Gospel readings for the current lectionary year.)
Let children either draw the story on regular paper and tie their drawings on a Lenten tree (a bare branch set in a tall vase or a can filled with rocks or marbles) or draw the story using felt markers on heavy, transparent plastic (obtainable at an office supply store) and mount the drawings on windows for a stained-glass effect. Some cycles of the lectionary don’t lend themselves as well to this activity. When this is the case, you could read one of Jesus’ parables each week and let children illustrate it.
Other Home Observances of Lent
Other ideas for observing Lent at home:
Create a Lenten worship center (or change your existing worship center). Use a purple cloth for penitence. Include a Bible opened to the Gospel lesson, an empty bowl to symbolize fasting, a sharing box for money for the poor, perhaps a cactus to symbolize a desert journey, and a cross of small branches tied together with twine.
Practice simplicity. An emphasis on simplicity is customary during Lent both to reflect gospel values and to be in solidarity/sharing with those on the margins. Although children won’t necessarily understand these reasons, just growing up in a home where simplicity is practiced is in itself spiritual formation. Here are some ways to practice simplicity:
- Plan to eat one simple meal each week, perhaps a soup supper or a rice-and-beans meal. Put the money you save by eating simply in your sharing box to donate to a cause of your choosing after Lent.
- Go through closets and donate gently used toys and clothing.
- Turn off electronics one night a week and play family games.
- Plant spring seeds. If it’s still too cold outside, start them in a pot. On Easter Sunday transfer some of the seedlings outside.
- Tell I-remember-when family stories.
- Help children decide on one small thing to give up (to “fast” from, even though it may not be food) to help them focus on the purpose of Lent.
- Practice the ancient custom of “burying” (putting away) something for Lent and taking it out again with great joy on Easter Sunday. You could put away a particularly decorative household item, or your family could make an alleluia banner to put away until Easter Sunday.
- Take on an act of service as a family. Suggestions include adopting a grandparent, visiting a homebound neighbor or church member, serving in a soup kitchen, or collecting blankets for homeless shelters.
- Each week let each person draw the name of someone in the family to do something nice for. That something nice can be as simple as giving someone a hug.
- Janet R. Knight is the former editor of Pockets magazine.