Simple Ways My Family Observes Lent with Small Children
Lent can sometimes seem like a season of darkness, sadness and self-restraint. Historically, Lent certainly included those qualities, but it also includes counterparts such as growth, renewal and joy. After all, the word “Lent” comes from the Old English for springtime.
In this etymology is a surprising insight: Pruning, penance and restraint bring budding, growth and bounty. We often seek to circumvent this necessary process by heading straight to the fun. But the fruit cannot grow without first its seed dying and then being reborn — just as Christ has done, a death and resurrection in which we have been joined through Baptism.
The self-restraint in food, drink and other activities that Christians show during the time of Lent is an outward manifestation and dedication to this inward spiritual reality. Since humans are not disembodied souls, Christians harmonize many spiritual practices with physical acts.
Following the liturgical calendar ingrains into our daily lives and thoughts the details of the Bible and Christian history. Like Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, Lent and Easter are a time of intense liturgical focus and complexity. To saturate in these seasons requires spending more time at church, reading Scripture and seeking catechetical and scriptural instruction.
Each year as I approach Lent as a steward of our family with six young children, I reflect on the self-restraint and focus that the church asks of her members in this liturgical season. I think through how our family can participate given this season of our lives, and I tailor our home life to that particular season.
Traditional Lenten observances include penitence, prayer, fasting, charity and spiritual instruction. While many think of Lent as a time of taking away, these practices incorporate both absence and presence — depriving oneself of some things in order to add others.
Many observant Christians will, for example, go without one of their usual daily meals and then donate either that food or the money that would have bought that food to someone in need. A seminary professor once visited our home. Days later I was surprised and touched to find a card in the mail noting he had donated to a Lutheran charity that feeds the hungry in thanks for our meal. I plan to follow his example this year, the first time I can practice fasting in the traditional way after about 12 years of being pregnant and nursing babies.
Fasting is an ancient practice, recommended by many physicians, and commended in the Bible. Exempting pregnant or nursing women and children from strict fasts is traditional, for obvious reasons: They are rapidly growing.
Many of us, however, are not rapidly growing in any natural or beneficial way, and fasting can help train one’s appetites. It has been long known to have both physical and spiritual benefits. The Bible discusses how fasting is useful in spiritual warfare and gives parameters for fasting. To tailor your own fasting, consult your doctor as to what’s best for you. Consider also consulting the useful book Eat, Fast, Feast by Dr. Jay Richards.
When I haven’t been able to fast entire meals for Lent, like many Christians I typically have given up some food items that I really love, such as coffee, sweets, alcohol or chocolate. I have also fasted from activities that may not be inherently evil but in which I am growing disordered, such as my cell phone use, time spent online, fun but frivolous entertainments or buying things I like but don’t need. In this way, Lent offers a built-in time of the year to take stock of one’s habits and make some needed moral adjustments.
We do not ask our small children to fast during Lent, but I do prepare simpler, less sumptuous food for the family. We eat less meat and more beans and vegetables. We don’t cook or eat desserts — although I don’t bat the kids off the dessert table at church suppers, either, as I consider Lenten observances to be a personal discipline one grows into with maturity.
Especially in the beginning, it can be hard to adopt new restrictions on your desires for food, comfort and indulgence. But as the weeks go by, it gets easier to carry these self-imposed little crosses. Seeing this is to me often an encouragement to keep going, like the first time I see I’ve lost a pound after starting a healthier meal plan or new exercise routine. I can feel the benefits in having more control over my choices and whether to act on the many desires I feel constantly.
In the place of the things we’ve taken away, Christians observing Lent traditionally add more spiritual disciplines and activities: acts of service to one’s neighbors, reading books of theological instruction or importance (such as a biography of a church father or a selection of his writings), attending additional church services, giving more of our income to those in need and more communal time such as weekly soup suppers. This year, I’m reading Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy, which takes place from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and church father Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, a very short but also very dense book.
The sobriety of Lent makes it also a good time for clarity, solitude, prayer, focus and charity. In preparation for Lent this year, I put together a little home station for reading the Treasury of Daily Prayer, my current substitute for a daily matins service. I put reminders of people to pray for at the little table reserved for the Treasury and a candle. When I sit down to read, my toddler and preschooler often run over to me, and I read them as much of the day’s readings as they will take, and we pray and sing the day’s hymn verse together.
In the evenings after our family dinner, my husband also reads that week’s Introit psalm. Each of these family Scripture readings takes only about five minutes, but they set the tone for the entire family and occur at natural times in the day we happen to be together. These are easy entrée points for reading the Bible daily that any family, couple or individual could also adopt during Lent and then ideally forward from Lent for the whole year.
These are just some examples of how the physical, emotional and spiritual disciplines we adopt during Lent can come to enrich our lives all year and point all our winters toward the eternal Easter that all Christians await with hope and joy.
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford