Lent is a season in the church year for many Christians around the world across denominational lines. Lent is the forty days preceding Easter, excepting Sundays, stretching in the western Christian tradition from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday itself. This year, Ash Wednesday is February 18. Lent culminates in Holy Week, where we closely follow the footsteps of Jesus to the cross on Good Friday and out of the empty tomb Easter morning. This church season is a solemn preparation for one of the most sorrowful days in the church year, as well as one of the most joyful.
While Lent is a very important part of the church year, our normal family and work obligations don’t decrease. It can be difficult to slow down, ponder the richness of our history and the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice, and move outside of the daily flow of our lives. Here are nine ways to bring Lent front and center for your family this year.
1. Go to Church during Lent
To experience the fullness of Lent, try to attend as many special Lenten services as possible. Hearing more of God’s Word is good for you and your family. If your church has an Ash Wednesday service, this is a great way to begin the season. Many churches include the imposition of ashes in this service, where a pastor makes a cross with ashes on the foreheads of attendees. These ashes are often made from the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service—a fun fact that can help show kids how church traditions fit together. (Are my kids the only ones who spend all year eagerly anticipating being actually encouraged in church to vigorously wave a massive palm branch around inside?)
Midweek Lenten worship services and fellowship times may be offered throughout the season. Holy Week is full of opportunities to attend special services, beginning with Palm Sunday, where we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Some churches offer Holy Monday through Holy Wednesday services, which teach a lot about the buildup to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. On Monday, we remember that Jesus was anointed with oil. Tuesday and Wednesday foretell Judas’ betrayal. Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of Holy Communion in the Last Supper. Good Friday is all about the crucifixion, with Holy Saturday being a day of prayerful waiting. Holy Week and Lent end with Easter and the celebration of the risen Christ.
2. Saying Farewell to Alleluias
It is traditional to omit parts of the church service during Lent that contain alleluias. Alleluia (or hallelujah) is an expression of praise and joy. Leaving it out from the liturgy allows for more somber reflection, reminding us of the solemn nature of the season. Spending weeks worshipping without alleluia sweetens its reintroduction on Easter morning. Some Christian traditions also incorporate burying an alleluia egg (a decorated egg) as part of the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This can be part of a Mardi Gras party with your kids and is a good visual reminder that alleluia is gone until Easter morning, when you bring the egg back out.
3. Sing, Sing, Sing
Lent has some truly beautiful hymns that are wonderful to bring into daily life. Consider playing them in the car while driving to and from school and other activities. Sing them as part of family devotions. Older kids (and parents) may enjoy looking up the history behind the hymns and the people who wrote them. It can be surprising just how well even small children can memorize verses of hymns with just simple repetition. As an additional bonus, learning hymns that are being sung in church can help kids too young to read quickly or well participate in church services.
4. Time for a History Lesson
Lent offers a great chance for some history lessons from the Old and New Testaments on all of the biblical events that last 40 days. Start with the 40 days and nights of rain that fell with Noah in the ark. Study how Moses was on Mount Sinai traditionally 40 days in Exodus, the Israelites spied on the Promised Land for 40 days, and how the Israelites then wandered the wilderness for 40 years until they reached the Promised Land. Goliath spent 40 days taunting the Israelite army before David came out to face him. The prophet Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Horeb in 1 Kings. And in Jonah, it took 40 days for Nineveh to repent or be destroyed. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and church tradition counts the evening from Good Friday to Easter morning as 40 hours. After Easter, Jesus lived with and taught the disciples for 40 days until His ascension.
5. Lenten Fasting
This is perhaps the single most commonly recognized tradition for Lent. It spans denominational lines, and even people in churches who don’t traditionally observe Lent often have heard of it. The traditions surrounding Lenten fasting have changed over the centuries, from strictly observed fasts in the early church to the more modern idea of fasts from certain foods or activities, and fasts only on certain days, such as Fridays. Fasting can be a way to turn away from our lives here and now to prayer and reflection upon God’s Word, reminding us of what Christ has done for us. Many churches have specific fast traditions, which can be a great way for families to connect with the heritage of their specific church.
6. Get Crafty
There are some simple Lenten crafts involving dried beans that are easy and fun, especially for young family members. Here are two crafts that both start with coloring dry beans purple to match the liturgical color of the season. The first: put the beans in a central location, while each child receives a jar. As they do certain activities through the season, such as kind actions or memorization, they earn a bean for their jar. The second option is to make an outline of a cross, and each day have the children glue a bean on, filling the cross shape. Both help children, especially the young ones, mark the passing of time through the season.
7. Planting for the Season and Eternity
Another lasting tradition in Lent is of planting and gardening. This coincides well with the time to plant seeds for plants that need an indoor start before transplanting later to the family garden. Another possibility is planting a specific Lenten garden indoors. These so-called resurrection gardens are small and include a tiny pot on its side to represent the empty tomb. Mound dirt as a hill, cover with grass seed, and let the kids make little crosses to go on the hill. Water through Lent and watch the grass grow. New life for the plants is a good way to talk about the new life we have as Christians.
8. Bake Hot Cross Buns
This child-friendly tradition not only helps us focus on Christ and the cross on Good Friday but also makes a good breakfast or snack for the whole family. Nursery rhymes about these sweet buns are recorded from the eighteenth century and can be found online. For families who enjoy the unique mess that is breadmaking, this is a fun group activity—adding dried fruit, such as raisins, on top and marking each with a cross. For people who enjoy having their kitchen not looking like a ten-pound sack of flour exploded, the dough can be made ahead of time and baked that morning.
9. Giving Alms and Thanks
Last but not least are almsgiving and prayer. Lent is an important time to turn as families to focused prayer for our families, churches, neighbors, and nation. The penitential emphasis of the season lends itself well to focusing on serious prayer. Along with prayer, we should remember those that need our help and focus on increased aid to those that are in our lives who may have less than we do. Giving to others can be something the whole family works on together and can help draw families closer to their communities, as well.
If looking at a list of suggestions feels overwhelming with an already busy family life, don’t despair. This isn’t meant to be another to-do list, it’s meant to be a help for ways to enrich your family’s life. Pick the first and last suggestions—go to church with your family, pray together, and be kind to those in your lives with less—then look at the rest as optional things to add on when a spare moment becomes available. I hope that Lent can be central to your lives this year.