This year, the season of Lent begins on March 1st, which we call Ash Wednesday. You’ll see streams of Catholics heading to the nearest parish to receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads and to hear the priest say the words, “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” Catholics across the U.S. will refrain from eating meat on Fridays, too, until the end of the Lenten fast on Easter.
There is more to Lent, however, than these rituals that everyone sees. This season is one of the most sacred of the year, and it is a wonderful time to introduce mystery and discipline into your life. For parents, the season of Lent can be a great way to introduce their children to the rituals of the church and to develop the habits that make faithful adult Catholics
What Is Lent?
The church has almost always celebrated a season of fasting and repentance before Easter. St. Irenaeus, 3rd century AD, writes about the time of fasting, “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24).
By the time of the council of Nicea, in 325 AD, the practice of Lent had been regularized as the forty days, not including Sundays, before Easter.
Lenten fasting rules also varied. In some places, the fast was a vegan diet, with no meat or animal products. In other places, the people ate only one meal a day, in the evening. Over time, fasting rules loosened to allow more food and more variety, usually out of concern for laborers who need more calories. Now we fast by refraining from meat on Fridays, and some people give up something else.
In our house, we both give up one thing and build one “good” habit. For us, these habits have worked better than New Year’s resolutions. For example, last year our youngest daughter added practicing piano for a half hour a day. At the end of Lent, she realized she made more progress in those 40 days than the entire year before hand. It inspired her to keep working and growing as a musician.
Recommended: Answers to Common Lent Questions
The Purpose of Lent
The Council of Vatican II puts the purpose of Lent this way, “The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent — the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance — should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer” (no. 109).
With those two things in mind – baptism and penance, we are looking for ways to make Lent approachable for children. How can we help them hear God’s Word and pray better?
This one might seem obvious, but none of the following will matter if you and your child are not attending mass at least weekly. In the mass, the church gives you Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, you pray together with the congregation, and you hear God’s word. This is the beginning of Christian devotion at any time, but especially in Lent.
Take your child to mass with you. While many parents think their children are too young to understand and participate, children can learn quickly. The mass is designed to be repetitive enough that non-readers can participate, too. Practice singing the songs and repeating the responses at home to prepare.
Go to Confession
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a major emphasis during Lent. Make this sacrament a part of your celebration of that season. If you don’t already go to confession regularly, Lent is a great time to start.
Children learn what is important by watching you. When you go to confession, take your child with you to the church. Explain what happens in confession and how you prepare. Guide your child in doing the same. Share with them your feelings of joy and faithfulness after completing your penance so they can see how beautiful this sacrament is.
Explain the Church’s Rituals
Many Catholics follow the rituals and practices of Lent without really understanding why the church does them. While participation is better than nothing, participation with understanding helps the mind and body to be fully incorporated into the traditions of the church.
Imposition of Ashes
The imposition of ashes marks the beginning of the penitential season. When the priest places the ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross, he says one of two formulas: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” Both the words and the ash remind each of us that death awaits us all because of sin.
The ashes come from the burnt palm fronds used on Palm Sunday the previous year. They symbolize the joy of the crowd turning to ash when Jesus was crucified. Some parishes make their own ash from the palms they used last year.
Make time to get to mass on Ash Wednesday with your child. The simple act of receiving ashes on the head rejuvenates interest in the Mass because it’s something different from the norm, especially for children who haven’t had their First Communion since they get to participate in the same thing as everyone else.
Veiling of Images
Many parishes veil or cover crosses and sacred images during the season of Lent, beginning with the fifth Sunday of Lent. The veils cover up the beauty of the images and crosses, giving your parish a sparse, minimalist look. When the veils are removed, off crosses after Good Friday and images during the Easter Vigil, the sudden return of beautiful artwork is meant to heighten the joy of Easter.
You can bring this practice into your home, too, but don’t just cover everything on your own. Make the project something you and your child share, so he or she gets the experience of draping the veils with you.
Contemporary fasting practices usually take two forms. Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays, and they give something up during the season of Lent. Some go as far as to eat only one large meal a day, with two snacks.
We fast because it allows us to train our wills to resist things we desire. If we can resist eating the foods we want or doing the things we gave up, we can use that training to help resist temptation when it strikes. Talk to your child about your fasting practices and answer any questions. Help your child choose something meaningful to give up.
Attend the Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross are fourteen episodes from the passion of Jesus Christ, and it is common for parishes to hold special times for either individual or corporate devotion. To prepare for this holy event, go with your child to see your priest and ask him to explain what happens. If your parish has a corporate service, ask for the Stations of the Cross booklet, so you can read through it together at home and practice the responses beforehand.
You might think this ritual is too much for a young child, but give it a try. While your child may not truly understand every action and motion in this ritual, as well as many other rituals in the church, you can use rituals like the Stations of the Cross to give them something to grow into and to help them fully participate with the adults.
Lent is a wonderful season for children because there are so many physical things to do. While children may have a hard time listening to a long homily, they can fully participate in many of the rituals we celebrate in Lent. All it takes is a little explanation and preparation, and you can help your child get the most of this season.