Has Lent lost its bite? In the rush of family activities, some people report that Lent no longer feels like a serious season, just more of the "same old, same old."
"We're losing Lent and we've got to get it back," says Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, in the February issue of U.S. Catholic. In his article, "Who threw out these 40 days?" he says it's good that the church, in the wake of Vatican II, put aside the complicated rules that snuffed out Lent's spirit, but in the process we also lost the soul-searching that is the purpose of Lent.
Untener argues, "The time has come to get back to the roots of Lent, the time-proven practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving--the rhythm of 40 intensive days experienced together as a community." I've adapted some of his steps for families:
1. Take fasting seriously.
If you want to experience life differently, eat less. Americans are so used to having abundance that it can be truly jarring to cut back on your intake.
"Fasting in itself does not make things right," says Untener. "It helps us see what things need to be made right." Small children shouldn't fast to the same extent as adults or older children, but everyone can give up a favorite food, snack, TV program, or game. Sharing your experience with your family can not only model the importance of this practice, but also help you shore up one another's resolve and experience the pleasure of going through Lent together.
I have taken to giving up listening to the radio when I'm in the car. I find the silence quite unnerving at first, but come to appreciate it over the 40 days. I find God often has much to say to me during those quiet rides, and I get a better sense of my own spiritual state. Often I become aware that I've been "running on empty," spiritually speaking, and I had been using the noise to mask a yearning for more connection with God.
3. Give to the poor.
There are two ways to teach your kids about charity: instruction and example. Lent is a time to employ both methods. "The word alms means 'a kind gift for someone in need,'" says Untener. Involve your children in almsgiving by sponsoring a needy child through an agency like the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (800-875-6564), which is a charitable act the children can understand and participate in. Or you can clear out closets and give good used items to Goodwill or your St. Vincent De Paul group. Set aside a chunk of the family budget this month for charity. Have a short family meeting to decide who best to give the money to--a local charity, a needy family, or some other need you're aware of. If you're not aware of any needs, call your parish for suggestions. Vow to become more aware in the coming year.
4. Make the Triduum the high point.
If you wanted to capsulize the lessons of Jesus' life, they would be contained in the services for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Even the smallest child can learn powerful lessons from the rituals surrounding these holy days: washing feet on Holy Thursday, stripping the altar bare after the Holy Thursday liturgy, the reading of the Passion and venerating the cross on Good Friday, a candle lit in the midst of a darkened church, blessing the oils, and pouring living water on new members to our community of faith on Holy Saturday.
It might be too much to expect younger children to attend services on all three days (which Triduum means), but choose one or more services to attend. They are revealing truths about our lives our kids will hear no place else.
And don't forget to include your own ethnic and family rituals during Lent and Easter. These are not frivolous activities--they give our kids a sense of belonging and a sense of the sacred, two qualities in short supply in our kids' world.