Blogger’s Note: This post originally written for and published in the February 2018 edition of the St. Michael Catholic Church stewardship newsletter.
Most of us don’t actively seek out sacrifice or suffering, and Lent is a season that encourages both: We give up meat on Fridays; we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; we are called to pray and give alms. Jodi and I spent this past Epiphany with some dear friends and discussed how our families approach Lent. Below are several of the best ideas shared that afternoon—may they spark new Lenten traditions in your own family!
Preparing for Lent
In the weeks leading up to Lent, spend time with your spouse and each of your children discussing how each of you are doing emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually. This can help you assess where you need to prune and where you need to grow. Ask: What brings me joy? What makes me anxious or upset? What’s going well, and what do I wish was going better?
And don’t wait until the last minute. Lent has a way of sneaking up on us, so we fall back on the same sacrifices year after year. If you haven’t already, start talking about Lent as a family now. Write down your Lenten commitments in a public place for encouragement and accountability.
What to Give Up
First, the basics: No meat on Fridays. You don’t give up sin for Lent (you give up sin all the time!), and unless you are very young and just learning the ropes, you shouldn’t give up things you don’t like anyway.
With those caveats, be creative! If your family is already meatless on Fridays, think about another meal-time sacrifice, like no salt or pepper, drinking only water, or eliminating a meal entirely. You could give up pop or sweets, hot showers in the morning, your pillow at night, television or social media. Last year we practiced Firelight Fridays as a family—no electric lights or screen time on Fridays after sunset. We lit candles and drew close together in the flickering light, played games, and talked and laughed as a family. Those hours without electricity caused us to slow down, reconnect, pray, and sleep longer and better.
Encourage your children to come up with their own sacrifices. If they think something might be too hard, encourage them—it may be exactly the sort of attachment God wants them to let go of so that they can draw nearer to Him!
What to Take On
Fasting—whether from food or some other comfort or enjoyment—is only one of the three Lenten disciplines; the Church also encourages us to increase prayer and provide for those in need. As a family, try to increase prayer time together by adding a family rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet, reading together from the Bible, or praying the Stations of the Cross at church or at home. In the past our family has collected all our Christmas cards in a basket, then drawn out a few at random each night during Lent to pray for the senders. Our friends have done similar with a prayer jar, writing intentions on slips of paper, then drawing them out and praying for them together.
Individually, consider adding to your prayer life by reading from scripture or a daily devotional book, picking a specific person or intention each day to prayer and fast for, or picking a new type of prayer to pursue during Lent. While you’re at it, pray that your Lenten practices become new spiritual habits!
In terms of almsgiving, Lent is the perfect time to for your family to give of their time, talent and treasure to people in need. Often agencies that help the poor have more donations than they can handle during the Christmas season, then very little during the first several weeks of the new year. If you change your family eating habits during Lent, track your grocery spending and donate whatever money you save to a local food shelf, soup kitchen, or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. You can also volunteer for these organizations to help those in need in a more direct way.
The Long Haul
Many people worry about not finishing what they start during Lent. It is important to recognize where you are spiritually and not take on too much, so that you fall short and become discouraged. At the same time, the desire to strive spiritually is a beautiful thing. Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself—and if you want to push yourself a little harder this year, consider a progressive Lent: adding another sacrifice or spiritual commitment each week until Easter.
Most importantly, remember that Lent should be a challenge! So when you stumble in your fasting, forget a prayer commitment, or miss an opportunity to help someone in need, asked for God’s pardon and peace and recommit yourself. Persevere and you, too, will rise on Easter with renewed strength and purpose.
Lenten Quick Facts
Did you know:
- Lent is a penitential season in the weeks before Easter, beginning on Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 14 this year, and ending on Holy Thursday, which falls on March 29.
- The Lenten season is a roughly 40-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Priests wear purple vestments during this season as a sign of penance, sacrifice and preparation.
- The Easter Triduum, the three-day period beginning with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, is not part of the Lenten season. It is considered a single liturgical celebration that marks the end of Lent and culminates in Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord at the Easter Vigil.
- The 40 days of Lent are approximate. This year the number of days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday is 44 including Sundays and 38 without Sundays. Although Sundays are not days of fasting and penance, they are still counted among the days of the Lenten season (e.g., the First Sunday of Lent), as is the extra day in February during a leap year.
- Catholics used to abstain from meat on Fridays year-round, and many still do. According to Church teaching, every Friday is a day of penance, and those who choose eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent are called to substitute another penitential practice on those Fridays.