In 2017, Lent begins Wednesday, 1 March
We’re spoilt by the church calendar at this time of year!
We’ve just had four weeks of candle-lighting at Advent, culminating, in our household, with this delightful moment on Christmas Day:
Now we’re coming to the end of the two-week Christmas season, and then it’s only a month until Lent begins.
Lent is awesome!
We love Lent in our house.
I know it has become a sombre period in some circles, but its roots are in joyous anticipation, just like Advent, rather than grouchy self-denial. Celebrating Lent with kids can be just brilliant, in my experience.
Roman Catholic priest Thomas Ryan describes this joy in The Sacred Art of Fasting (I’m quoting via Scot McKnight’s book, Fasting, in chapter 10):
Fasting is one of the ways the servants [of Jesus] keep themselves alert in this future-oriented waiting until the bridegroom returns. To what could you liken their discreet, mysterious joy as they wait? You could say it is like the quiet humming or whistling of a choir member earlier in the day of a concert. It’s like a mother and father cleaning the house and making up the beds in anticipation of the kids’ coming home at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s like standing in the airport terminal or train station, waiting for your loved one to appear. It’s like a fiancee patiently addressing the wedding invitations: The long-awaited event is not here yet, but it will come, and this is necessary preparation. In each case the energy is upbeat, forward-looking, and marked by the quiet joy of anticipation.
If you skimmed that – as I often do when I see a quote! – you might like to go back and read it properly. It’s a beautiful set of pictures that has changed my sense of what Lent can be.
So, um, what’s the point of Lent?
Lent is the period of 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter. Just as Advent is a season that prepares us for Christmas, Lent prepares us for Easter.
Lent can be one of the richest times of the year for people exploring or immersed in Christian spirituality.
It’s an annual, extended opportunity to focus on the life and work of Jesus and consider our own responses to his call to follow him.
Lent is a church tradition, not something instituted by Jesus or the apostles. So no one can be right or wrong about how to celebrate Lent. We’re all in the same boat, theologically speaking, of needing to figure out how Lenten practices might sensibly and meaningfully connect us and our household to God in significant ways.
The oldest churches – the Eastern Orthodox and the (Western) Roman Catholic – have church-wide fasting and abstinence practices that all the faithful are called to adopt, according to their health and stamina, for the several weeks leading up to Easter. But even the Roman Catholic practices have changed significantly even over the last century, so there’s more conceptual room than usual for people to decide for themselves what would make most sense for them.
If, like me, you’re outside those historical traditions, you have full freedom to take on whatever Lenten practice you like.
If you love knowing what’s behind modern practices, I recommend checking out my four-part series What’s the Point of Lent?:
And if you want to build our own family practice this year, one that will nourish your household and help you all follow Jesus more closely in 2016 and beyond, I thought I’d also lay out here some principles and ideas to consider.
As always, I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
Making Lent a positive experience at your place
If you have ever felt a bit sceptical about observing Lent – either because you’ve done it before or because you never have – it may be because there are a few common ways it can be twisted and distorted into something unhelpful.
Lent can turn into a diet or budgeting quick-fix, or be a practice imposed from outside that just makes you grumpy. It can fool us into thinking six weeks of ‘holiness’ earns 46 weeks of chocolate and spiritual sloth. It can turn into a competition about who can pull off the most dramatic feat of fasting.
As you think about what would be useful and life-giving for you and your household, keep an eye on such things:
- Try to be clear about your motivations if you’re going to abstain from something. If you choose giving up chocolate hoping that it might be just as good for your skin or waistline as your spiritual growth, then Lent might become just a glorified diet.
- Think of Lent as a kickstarter for a whole year (and beyond) of growing more like Jesus. As Rachel Held Evans suggests, ask yourself: “How do I want Lent 2014 to affect not only the next 40 days but also the next 40 years?“
- Pace yourself and aim for small and manageable rather than enormous and exhausting. Try and find half an hour to yourself sometime in the next week to think over what you really want to do, and what simple things you can start doing that will be sustainable for six weeks.
- Find some partners to chat this all over with, and, ideally, join together with. Lent is meant to be a community activity. Don’t go it alone.
So if you’re keen to create a new household tradition, here are eight key tips to make it enjoyable and worthwhile.
They’re discussed fully below, but first, why don’t you pin this handy infographic for later:
Pin this for later!
Tip 1: Use Candles
Just if you want to. But honestly, it’s the best idea I’ve ever had!
Here’s the backstory to the Lent candle pattern we’ve developed over the years, and here’s how it goes in our house (feel free to do whatever you like):
Just like with Advent candles, once a day, you light the candle of the current week, and all the candles that have already been lit. So for the first week, you light one candle, for the second, you light two, and so on.
Each week the candle is connected with a Bible reading and a sentence that makes a point from that reading.
The Sacraparental Lent Candle Pattern
Arrange seven candles on your dining table or somewhere prominent. We use six purple and one white, but you can do whatever you like.
As we light the candles, we say:
1. We light the first candle to remind us that Jesus is wise.
2. We light the the second candle to remind us that Jesus and the prophets make us brave.
3. We light the third candle to remind us that Jesus gives us important jobs to do to make the world better.
4. We light the fourth candle to remind us that Jesus gives us a fresh start whenever we need one.
5. We light the fifth candle to remind us that Jesus is in charge of life (and death).
6. We light the sixth candle to remind us that Jesus is a surprising King.
7. We light the seventh candle to remind us that Jesus is alive.
Pin this for later if you like the idea of using candles.
Tip 2: Do something daily
Lighting a candle each Advent Sunday at church is awesome, and we’ve found it is even better to light candles every day at home as well. A day is a long time for a little kid, and a week is beyond their comprehension.
I warmly encourage you to try doing something that’s a daily practice – or, you know, most days.
Some ideas and examples (just pick one or two – this isn’t supposed to be a list of a million things to fit in!):
- Light a candle once a day and talk about Jesus together
- Read a story about Jesus each day
- Make a list of people to pray for, and pray for one (or more) each day
- Use Ann Voskamp’s Way of Light wreath idea
- Just like an Advent calendar of activities (rather than chocolate!), brainstorm a list of service, craft and devotional activities, and do one each day throughout Lent
- Doodle a prayer each day
- Make a prayer paper chain streamer like this one, adding a link in the chain each day, one per person, writing down what you’re praying about. It could be people, countries, personal situations, anything.
What we’ll be doing
This Lent, we’ll have three adults, a four-year-old and a one-year-old in the house.
We’re planning to do these things daily(ish):
- light Lenten candles each night at dinner time, using this pattern
- make a purple paper chain prayer streamer, ring by ring, adding to it daily
- read or tell stories about Jesus at bedtime.
Tip 3: Talk about Jesus (more)
Lent is squarely about Jesus. It is an opportunity to refocus our own lives towards Jesus, too.
Perhaps you could do a little audit of your daily and weekly life at home. I have two key questions for you, and the answers may surprise you:
- How much of your day or week is focused on or connected with Jesus – from your perspective?
- How often each day or week do you mention Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit in the hearing of children?
I think it’s common for kids to have a completely different impression of how ‘spiritual’ their family is than their parents, because so much of adult spirituality is internal and silent, or happens out of earshot of kids.
As I wrote in this guest post on Lulastic and the Hippyshake:
You might be a pro at finding God in everyday life, or seeing the spiritual angle of your routines and choices. In my observation, many kids don’t notice this in their parents. Churches I have been part of are full of kids who would be astonished to know why their parents actually follow Jesus, because the subject simply hasn’t come up. If you want to model spiritual stuff to your kids, you’ll have to live it out loud.
[Read more about how we do this in our family at Lulastic.]
This Lent, live your commitment to Jesus out loud in front of your kids. For example:
When you do the recycling or turn off a light in an empty room, talk about how ‘it’s important to take care of God’s earth’.
When you intervene in a squabble, remind children that Jesus wants us to be kind.
When you buy fairtrade chocolate or free-range eggs, talk about how Jesus wants us to use our money to make the world a better place.
If you sometimes make a quick silent prayer for a friend or as an ambulance passes, try doing it out loud.
When a child makes a great choice, connect their growing wisdom and maturity with following Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit (as far as is appropriate and true for them): ‘I love how the Holy Spirit is helping you to be wiser every day.’
Also, what about taking turns telling your own story of choosing to follow Jesus? If our kids heard the adults around them ‘give their testimony’ each year at Lent, they would know us and God a lot better by adulthood, I reckon.
What we’ll be doing
We do a lot of this stuff in our house, so it will be business as usual for the most part.
Our four-year-old has started being interested in who else we know who follows Jesus too, so I’m wondering about asking friends if they can explain to him why they do. I’ll let you know how that goes!
Tip 4: Try Lenten meals (but probably not fasts)
It’s traditional to connect Lent with some kind of altered pattern of eating and drinking, usually some kind of ‘fasting’.
By the time of Jesus, however, Jews were also doing regular ‘stationary’ fasting (meaning the whole community or ‘station’ did it together at the same time), twice a week. Jesus was challenged as to why his followers didn’t take part in the weekly round of fasting, so it seems to have been an expected part of Jewish culture.
Jesus did, however, famously fast for 40 days in the desert while preparing to make the career change from carpenter to Messiah.
Fasting continued to develop as an important spiritual practice in the early church.
By the end of the first century, adult converts were encouraged to fast in the lead-up to their baptisms. Christians fasted twice a week and also for the morning or day until they shared the Eucharist(communion) on Sundays. By around the fourth century it was usual for converts to be baptised at Easter, and for those being baptised – and their supporters – to fast.
The Orthodox churches have a strict vegan fast for 55 days leading up to Easter (yes, you read that right. Read more here.)
Roman Catholics are encouraged to give up meat for Lent, and in particular, to donate to charity the money that they save from eating more simply.
So what should we do in our family practices of Lent? Should fasting be part of it?
Children are not traditionally called to fast at all, and I’m pretty wary of changing kids’ diets for Lent. What’s in a kid’s diet that shouldn’t be there for six weeks?
BUT: you might find that some kind of change in meal habits could help (particularly older) kids to focus on Lent as a different kind of time.
Maybe you could start eating at a slightly different time, or move the dining table to a different location for Lent, or use different table linen or plates.
Maybe twice a week the family could eat a simple, cheap meal, like soup, or rice and dal, and donate the money saved to a particular charitable cause.
Maybe once a week you could all cook extra helpings together to drop off to someone who needs a break from cooking (a new parent, someone who’s sick, someone who lives alone).
Maybe you could volunteer weekly at a soup kitchen or other food charity (like a food bank or food rescue service).
Maybe you could learn to make special Lent foods together, like these prayer pretzels. Learning a new vegetarian or vegan family dinner recipe or two would be a useful thing you could use throughout the coming year to save money and go easier on the planet.
Do you have other ideas? Please pop them in a comment below!
What we’ll be doing
We’ll have our Lent candles to light at dinner time.
I’m thinking about the idea of having a simple meal once or twice a week. I’ll try selling it to the household and see how it goes down!
I like the idea of changing how the table looks. Maybe we’ll have a table-cloth for Lent?
Tip 5: Engage all the senses
Talking about our spirituality is important. Enacting it in concrete ways through experiences, visual reminders and special objects can be super helpful too.
One of the great things about lighting candles for Lent is that it is so multi-sensory. You can see the candles on the table, all day. You get to light them (or watch an adult light them!). You can smell the match and the wick, and use your own breath to blow them out at the end of the meal. Different colours might come into play.
Other ways to use the range of senses to connect kids with God:
- Instead of just saying ‘Thank you, God’ for the good stuff in your day, write or draw it and stick it up on your own family Gratitude Wall.
- Make a shredder confessional.
- Buy a large map of the world, or get a large atlas out of the library. Use the visual reminders of different parts of the world to pray simple, one-sentence prayers for the people of different countries and regions.
- Make a prayer tree of photos of people you want to pray for as a household.
- Get out of the house and volunteer somewhere to make the world a better place.
- Watch some videos that help kids explore spirituality: wildlife documentaries, animated Bible stories, stories of how other people live… add your ideas below, please!
- Write character traits (wisdom, kindness or self-control, for example) you want God to develop in you onto balloons, then blow them up, picturing how the Holy Spirit breathes life into us and makes us more like Jesus.
What we’ll be doing
The candles and paper chains will add some three-dimensionality to our Lent.
If the streamer goes down well, I could imagine switching to one of the other ideas later on for variety – but I could also imagine not quite having the energy for that! We’ll see.
Tip 6: Recruit a Lent Team
When I was researching the meaning of Lent in different traditions, I was struck by how, particularly for the early church and for the Orthodox churches, fasting and Lenten practices are community events. We can’t do this stuff by ourselves.
So why not make yourselves a team for Lent? Ask around your friends or at church for a few other households – with or without children – who would like to do some aspect of things together.
- You could get together on Sunday evenings, have a meal together and light candles.
- You could go out each Saturday afternoon and do a beach or park clean-up together, somewhere different each week, armed with rubber gloves, hand sanitiser and rubbish bags.
- You could do a cook-a-thon together, and make lots of meals to distribute to people who would appreciate some help.
- You could learn a new skill together that will benefit you all in the coming year: bread-making, sewing, car repair, first aid, perhaps? What else?
What we’ll be doing
Last time we did the Lent candles, lots of people around the Sacraparental community did it too and it was so great to have the company! If you’re keen, please leave a comment and stay connected throughout Lent, here or on Facebook or Twitter.
This year, inspired by lovely Christmas evening get-together with friends, I’ve sent out an email to four households asking if anyone wants to combine forces for some of this stuff, and get together in person. I’ll keep you posted.
Tip 7: Share the love
Make sure your Lenten practice includes things that impact people beyond your household.
The prophet Isaiah brings this message from God:
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Fasting that doesn’t benefit our neighbour in some way is worthless or worse.
Whatever your Lenten plan is, make sure it faces outwards as well as inwards.
What we’ll be doing
We have the classic situation of a local park covered in rubbish, so I’m keen to do a Lent clean-up. Again, I’ll need to see who’s with me on this!
When we talk, each week, about how Jesus helps us be wise, kind, and so on, I’ll be making an effort to relate these things to why we have moved to Chiang Mai, and how we are trying, as a household, to make a difference for people in Myanmar.
Tip 8: Kick-start the rest of the year
Lent is an annual opportunity to refocus and recalibrate, but it’s not supposed to be the only time we grow or develop – or think about Jesus!
In this post on celebrating Easter with kids, I have a few ideas of new Easter traditions you can start in your household so that Easter is seen as the beginning of the next season, and we can all build on Lent to develop further during the rest of the year.
- Review responsibilities. Is your eight-year-old ready for the challenge of cooking dinner or doing the grocery shopping online? Would someone like to swap from recycling to vacuuming as a weekly responsibility?
- Chat about your household spirituality. Would people like to do something together in the post-Easter period? Search Pinterest or ask friends for some ideas. Would you like to read a nourishing book together each night? Narnia? Start a gratitude wall or other creative activity? Do people want to pray more together or more by themselves? Get older kids and adults to have a look at Ten Ways to Pray for some more ideas.
- Discuss your charitable giving. Are there new initiatives you want to support? New ways of saving money in order to give it away? Do kids want to have responsibility for some giving? Again, remember that kids may not even be aware of half your charitable activity, and if you are to leave a legacy of generosity, they need to be apprenticed into it.
- Brainstorm how your household can make the world a better place in the coming year. Check out this post on kids making a difference if you need some ideas.
What we’ll be doing
My kids are a bit young for some of the family meeting ideas, but I think new clothes at Easter could be a goer.
Whatever crafty/multi-sensory prayer things we do over Lent, I’ll be keeping an eye on what works well and planning something to take the place of Lenten practice once the next season begins. I like the idea of having a different dinner-time spiritual practice for each season of the church year (so I’m just working on one for the time between Christmas and Easter at the moment).
Make a plan and enjoy yourselves!
Whatever you decide to do together for Lent, may it be life-giving and nourishing.
May you experience the joyous anticipation of Easter, and find yourself renewed and refreshed for another year of making the world a better place in Jesus’ name.
For all my Lent and Easter resources, head to this comprehensive index!