Each year when I mention Lent in front of my kids, the first thing they ask is, “Is Lent when we have to give something up and eat cheese pizza every Friday?”
“Yes,” I respond, making a mental note to vary our Friday night meals a little more. “But it’s not just about giving something up.”
Then they usually give me a “Here comes one of mom’s lectures” look. And in the end they’re usually not convinced.
But to be fair, I suspect a whole lot of Catholics—adults included—fail to see Lent any differently than my kids do.
As parents, we know that kids always ask, “Why?” about everything. And maybe they’re on to something. So in order to get beyond the rote of fasting and abstinence each Lent, perhaps it helps to know why we do it in the first place.
The actual purpose behind fasting and abstinence is to help us connect with the suffering of Jesus. Suddenly, giving up our favorite show or food doesn’t seem so trying in light of what Jesus endured, does it?
Fasting during Lent has its origins in the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. Days of fasting during Lent are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, Catholics over the age of 18 and younger than 60 should eat only one full meal. Two smaller meals can be eaten, but when combined, those two should not exceed the full meal.
Abstinence from meat is observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but is also practiced on Fridays throughout Lent in the United States. Actually, according to the Code of Canon Law, Catholics should abstain from meat every Friday throughout the year in addition to Ash Wednesday and several other days. But in 1966, the U.S. bishops amended the practice to include just Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. They do, however, encourage Catholics to try to abstain from meat every Friday.
Make It Worthwhile
So if Lent to you has become just the time of year when you have to give something up, give it a jump start with the help of the following tips:
Make it count. Throughout Lent last year my four-year-old son, Alex, gave up jelly—which he doesn’t particularly like in the first place—and numerous other things based on what we were having for dinner that night. My point is, make your sacrifice count. Make sure it’s something that will really get you thinking. Fasting and abstinence aren’t supposed to be easy.
Put it in perspective. One of the things that always gets me back on track with my Lenten offering is to think of what Jesus went through and then compare it to what I am sacrificing. Suddenly, whatever I gave up doesn’t seem as difficult, and I’m usually re-energized.
Stick to the necessities. I’m always irritated when my kids ask for something just because they can—a toy, a snack, a drink. Encourage your kids to ask themselves if they really need something before they ask. Ask them if they need to have a snack before bedtime. Have them try to go to a store without asking for a toy, or drive past a fast-food restaurant without asking to get something. For yourself, make an effort at the grocery to purchase only the necessities.
Seek out new ideas. One of the problems with doing something over and over again is that it can get stale. For instance, I think I gave up candy every year for most of my childhood. There was no real thought behind it; it was just what I did. This year, try to be creative and put some real thought into your Lenten sacrifice.
For Teens: Turn That Palm Into a Cross
Each year when my family receives a palm on Palm Sunday, we go home and tuck it behind a picture frame in our living room where it resides—mostly unnoticed—until the next year. But last year I came across an activity using the palms that really makes them stand out. Someone sent me a link for how to make crosses out of the palms. I tried it, and now I notice our palm much more often than I used to.
So why not try it yourself? Better yet, gather your friends, classmates or members of your parish’s youth group before Palm Sunday and make palm crosses to distribute to people after Mass.
Or if you can’t make the crosses before Palm Sunday, suggest that your parish hold an afternoon for families to come and learn how to make their own palm cross, similar to what many parishes do with Advent wreaths.
For Kids: Join In
According to Church law, anyone under the age of 14 is not required to abstain on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. And while abstaining may be a bit difficult for you, I bet there’s something you could give up for Lent. Try to think of something that would be a real challenge for you. It might be giving up playing video games, or not losing your temper with your siblings. Or you might try extra hard not to talk back to your parents. Try to think of whatever might prove challenging for you and give it your best effort. If giving up one particular thing for six weeks seems too difficult, maybe make a different choice each week. I bet you’ll be surprised at how well you can fulfill your Lenten sacrifice.
In order to keep track of how well you’re doing, make yourself a calendar with the 40 days of Lent. For each day that you keep your Lenten promise, mark that day with a sticker. At the end of Lent you will have a good reminder of how well you did!