Lent in the Home
Spring’s Not Yet Here
As Lent begins with trees still bare,
There’s hardly a new leaf anywhere;
But on the branch, if you look well,
Beneath the bark there’s a gentle swell,
Where rising life begins to flood
And promises that new leaves will bud.
Then, warmed by sun and fed by rain,
All that seemed dead will bloom again.
Lent is a season of forty days that begins six and a half weeks before Easter. The forty days do not count Sundays as Sundays are always “little Easters.” The name itself—Lent—comes from lengthen-tide, the time of lengthening days: spring. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it parallels nature and is a time of waiting and growth. Just as the earth is preparing to blossom anew, so, too, our faith can grow and deepen to come forth renewed and strengthened at Easter.
Lenten focus is on discipleship. It is time to concentrate on how to live, how to follow Jesus, how to be a disciple. Lent is the traditional time for new Christians to prepare for baptism and for all of us it can a time to deepen our life in Christ. It is time for self-examination, spiritual cleansing, prayer, growth in faith and in discipline. The traditional Lenten disciplines are prayer, fasting and the giving of alms. These help us focus on God and what is essential in life. Lent is a journey of conversion, a time that shows us we are utterly dependent on God’s grace. Lent is not the time to focus on the Passion; Holy Week is the time to do that. Lent is about discipleship; it is spring training for the soul.
Lent is a solemn season, a contrast with the light of Epiphany and the Easter celebration to come. It is time to reflect on the meaning of baptism—a time of meditation and contemplation. It is time to die to sin and be ready to rise to new life at Easter. This is time for the heart to change, time to pass from death into life. It is forty days in the wilderness: a place for self-examination and repentance. It calls us to focus on essential priorities and growth. Lent is a somber time, but not joyless; prepare with joy for the Easter feast.
Lent is marked by simplicity with natural and coarse fabrics. The liturgical color is purple or violet. There is an absence of ornamentation. The season is visually distinct from Holy Week with its Passion symbols.
Special food actually begins on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. The custom goes back to when Lent was more abstemious than it is today and milk, eggs, cream, butter and other fats were forbidden during Lent. So thrifty homemakers used up these foods, making pancakes or other high fat foods like Polish paczki. So, have pancakes for supper on Tuesday and talk about Shrove Tuesday and the beginning of Lent. “Shrove” comes from “shriven,” meaning your sins have been confessed and “shriven” or forgiven. Lenten disciplines do not earn forgiveness which is already freely given; they encourage growth and deepening of faith.
Shrove Tuesday is also a day when you can “bury the alleluia” and not use it at church or home during Lent. “Alleluia” is a word especially associated with Easter. It has been omitted from Lenten liturgy since at least the 5th century, forming a sort of verbal fast. Children can make specially decorated paper “Alleluias.” “Bury” them in a secure, hidden place and bring them out anew on Easter with special joy.
Get ready for Ash Wednesday on Shrove Tuesday. Ash Wednesday ashes are prepared by burning palms from Passion/Palm Sunday the previous year (remember to save your palms!). Burn the palms in a disposable aluminum pan, or make one with several layers of aluminum foil. As it is winter you may want to do it in a fireplace if you have one. Pulverize the ash—a pestle works well. They may also be sieved. The dry ashes are very light and tend to fly around. A bit of olive oil may be added and then they also make a darker mark. Do not use water as that can have a reaction, think lye, that causes burning and redness. A simple liturgy for home use is below.
Ash Wednesday is the time to turn, to turn from sin and darkness in our lives and ask God to create a new and clean heart, renewing a right spirit within us. It is also time to reflect upon and acknowledge our mortality. It is one of two times in the year when it is natural to talk about death with our children. They will experience death, a grandparent or other family member, neighbor or friend, sooner or later. They need to know that there is not a time when we are outside God’s love and care. It is best to learn this before experiencing such loss.
Pretzels are a good lenten food because they represent arms folded in prayer (be sure to turn them so the “little hands” are at the top). They are also made without eggs, milk or fat which in times past were not allowed during Lent. Place one in the center of each plate before meals as a reminder that prayer is especially important in this season.
A weekly simple meal helps strip away the bounty we normally enjoy. It reminds us that many people do not have enough food—not even what we may think of as “sacrificial.” Put the money that is saved into a lenten money box (see sidebar) to support those in need. Give it to a program from your church, a local agency that helps the hungry or Bread for the World, a collective ecumenical Christian voice urging our nation’s leaders to end hunger at home and abroad.
Heavenly Father, we ask you to bless these little breads. Each time we eat them, may we be reminded of the special season of prayer and fasting that we are keeping. May they remind us of our need to come closer to you in prayer. May they remind us of those in need. Keep your loving arms around us, O Father, to protect us always, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There are many resources with daily lenten activities for families. Here is an order for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is useful if you feel something simpler is more appropriate for young children or if your church doesn’t offer Ash Wednesday services.
PDF file for Ash Wednesday family worship leaflet has just a bit to read, to sing, and to pray.
Print on gray stock or place inside a construction paper cover, either gray or purple.
If you print on heavy stock you’ll have reusable leaflets that may simply be pulled out to be used year after year. Children may decorate the covers.
Reading should be done by both adults and children; it is important to involve everyone at an appropriate level.
Pretzels—an Ancient Lenten Practice
Pretzels for Lent date back to the early Church, perhaps sometime in the 4th century. During that time it was common for Christians to fast during the season, abstaining from meat, dairy, fats, and sweets. These quick breads are made with only a tiny bit of sugar (or honey, if you prefer) to activate the yeast and no fat – they are entirely flour, water and yeast!
Fasting is not an end in itself, it helps us empty ourselves and so draw closer to God. Praying is another way to draw closer to God and pretzels remind us of prayer, too. This soft dough is formed into a loop with ends crossed, meant to symbolize arms crossed in prayer. The word “pretzel” comes from the German translation of the Latin word for little arms, “bracellae.” Another story places the origin of the word in “pretiola” which means little reward, so pretzels might have been given as an award to a child who had learned her prayers!
One of my favorite lessons that these pretzels teach is about yeast. We hear Jesus compare the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast that spreads through flour to make dough rise. Matthew’s version of the parable says that she uses a measure of yeast to 60 pounds of flour. In our recipe we use about a pound of flour, and we can see how much our measure of yeast makes it rise. The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny bit of leaven that makes flour into bread!
SHROVE TUESDAY/ASH WEDNESDAY
Advent in the Home
“Spring’s Not Yet Here” by Mala Powers, from Follow the Year: A Family Celebration of Christian Holidays, Harper & Row, 1985.