Lent was not a season I grew up observing. I was one of those jokers who offered to take everyone’s chocolate, after all I was free from that liturgical bondage. Of course, I still resonate with the Evangelical critique of “empty” rituals, but I’ve since learned that many evangelicals celebrate Lent and that liturgy is not by definition “empty.” It’s a matter of the heart and one’s intention. As Robert Webber points out, Lent (like the other seasons) is intended to orient us around a pattern of “remembrance of God’s saving deeds and the anticipation of the rule of God over all creation.”
Since Lent has not been a longtime tradition for my family, my wife and I don’t know the “right” way to observe it, and it is especially challenging with children who don’t immediately grasp what is fasting, testing, or death. So we’ve been learning as we go (our boys are now 11, 5, and 2 1/2). In what follows, I will share some resources, practices, and ideas that have aided our family to live into the Lenten season and be shaped by it.
One of the most helpful orientations to Lent and other seasons of the Christian calendar is Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (2004) by Robert E. Webber.
Gertrude Mueller Nelson provides a combination of Lenten background combined with practical ideas in her book, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (1986).
Finally, Tevor Hudson offers a 40-day devotional that is very helpful for all ages (Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days). Each day’s reflection, which focuses on a given topic, only takes one small page. It features a verse, comments by Hudson, and a “daily practice” which is simple and concrete. One can always adapt the daily practice to be appropriate for children of various ages.
Themes of Lent: Death, Fasting and Testing
There are numerous themes associated with Lent. We emphasize death, fasting, and testing.
The theme verse for Ash Wednesday is, of course, Gen 3:19 – “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is always a struggle to know when and how to introduce death to children, but we decided not to “hide” or “protect” our kids from the concept, even when youngsters. While they have felt the “weight” of death when we explain it, this has been a positive experience overall. It reflects the wisdom of Ps 90:12 “So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely” (NET). We are also sure to recall that our Lenten journey into death actually leads to new life! Here is a great time to introduce our resurrection hope.
We explain fasting to our children this way: it is a way to weaken our attachment to the things of the world. What we fast from varies from year to year, so each of us reflect on what it is that has most captured our attention (e.g., dessert, sweet drinks, music, FaceBook, tablet use, or a combination of things). We don’t force our children to fast since the point of fasting is personal formation, not an obligation. Instead, we invite them into the experience. Our oldest started fasting from things around age 9. (Don’t forget Sundays are Feast Days when the fast is broken!)
Testing, of course, relates to fasting. While there may be other ways that testing will occur in our lives, fasting is the most immediate manifestation during Lent: will we honor the fast? Testing also pertains to the reason we fast. That is, through the test of fasting, we are weakening the hold that the world has on us—we are becoming more attentive to the Lord’s presence when we would otherwise be distracted, indulged, or entertained.
Lenten Centerpiece: A Centering Practice
This is the most important practice our family does because it is a visible, tangible, and daily reminder of God’s presence during Lent through the themes of death, fasting, and testing. Our centerpiece consists of the following:
- A small rectangular tray of molding sand represents the desert. This is the place of testing, where Satan may tempt us, but also where the Spirit leads us and where angels may minister to us.
- In the tray of molding sand we place a small basin of water which represents our baptism. After Jesus’s baptism, the Spirit led him into the desert for 40 days of testing. Baptism represents the start of our discipleship and new life.
- Next, we place a large round candle in the middle which recalls the Holy Spirit’s presence. We must continually walk in the Spirit, for we will have no fear, even in the darkest valley (Ps. 23).
- Finally, we place a wooden outline of Jesus which is in the shape of a cross. At the ends of the cross are notches to remind us of the nails in Jesus’s hands and feet, as well as in his side. One side is rough and the other is smooth to remind us that while some days are good and others are bad, Jesus is with us just the same.
At least once a day at a meal, we will light the candle and talk about Lent using this centerpiece as a guide. The children (eagerly) touch the sand, the water, the cross, and then blow out the candle when we are finished. As part of this ritual, we read a page from Pauses for Lent (see above). This practice captures the attention of even our 2 year old twins and frames our day.
Lenten Practices for Children
In addition to the above, here are a few other practices which we find helpful for children, to make Lent concrete, even if the little one’s don’t fast.
- Go outside or somewhere you can find dirt, and have the child pick up a handful. Then talk about dust and the cross as you reflect on Gen 3:19 (from Pauses for Lent)
- Make a banner, poster, or sign around one of the themes of Lent. Consider cutting images out of magazines and newspapers to make a collage, or have the kids draw things that come to mind (from To Dance with God).
- Create a mask which has a normal or happy face on one side and another which looks sad or dreary to illustrate Matt 6:16-18 (from To Dance with God).
- Place a cross made of twigs in a small pot, or hang one on the wall with the text of Matt 10:38 to remind us of our discipleship posture (from To Dance with God).
- Have the kids slowly sip a cup of water after talking about the desert where water is scarce. Pray “Lord, in my thirst for you, give me your water of life” (from Pauses for Lent).
- Lie on the ground, either face up or face down, with the children and together offer yourselves to God (from To Dance with God). Consider also praying the “body prayer” which is found at the bottom of the post, “How Rituals Can Knit Your Family Together.”
An Objection: Family life is so complicated and busy – there’s no time to observe Lent
Whether Lent is a new observance or a familiar habit, our lives are busy, especially so with children! Our family’s goal is to observe Lent together every day, not because of obligation, but because we desire the transformation which God brings through it. That said, there are days when we forget or don’t make time for one reason or another. Instead of feeling guilty that we didn’t satisfy the “checkbox” of Lent, we let it go and start afresh the next day. This is one further reason the Lent centerpiece and the short devotional, Pauses for Lent are so helpful to our family.
Ben Snyder is a member of Soul Care Collective’s Steering Committee.