Living a Loving Lent: How to Observe the Penitential Season as a Family

Family Matters: Catholic Living

(photo: Shutterstock)

This year is an odd one, liturgically speaking. If the Christmas-on-a-Monday confusion didn’t rock your family, this year, St. Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, and Easter is April 1, better known as April Fool’s Day.

Evidently, the last time these holidays collided was in 1945, so it’s an occurrence for the ages. But despite (and perhaps because of) the unusual start to Lent 2018, there are still many meaningful ways that your family can observe this season of contemplation and preparation with intentionality, which will provide meaningful lessons for even the littlest ones among us to grow in Christian love.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the season for a family is how to choose meaningful sacrifices and practices, all while making sure we don’t turn it into a season that our children (or we ourselves) dread. The confluence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday may actually prove to be the perfect opportunity for setting the tone of the Lenten season.

While the “romantic” nature of St. Valentine’s Day often takes center stage, it is more importantly a day where our love — romantic or otherwise — for one another can be celebrated. And, ultimately, this is what Lent is about, too. As Christians, we are called to love one another; it is our highest calling. And during Lent, we seek to become more perfect Christians.

So, as this Ash Wednesday “kicks off” this year’s Lenten season, use its convergence with St. Valentine’s Day to spark a conversation with your family about what it means to love one another and how we can use this Lent to learn to love each other better — all leading up to that most perfect example of love: Jesus’ death on the cross. 

While you’re receiving your ashes Feb. 14 (hopefully as a family, if possible) and having these important conversations about love, perhaps make time for a relatively easy activity your children will appreciate: burying an “Alleluia rock.”

I have a distinct memory from one Ash Wednesday at Catholic grade school of writing “Alleluia” on a pebble, which was then buried — along with my classmates’ “Alleluia pebbles” — in the sand of the playground to be dug up when we returned from Easter break.

 This is an activity that brought a lot of significance to bear in my young mind, which I realize all the more fully as an adult. As Jesus — our greatest reason for rejoicing — disappeared into the desert, so, too, did our greatest expression of rejoicing (“Alleluia”) disappear into the sand.

This is an activity that can be easily carried out with one’s family, whether in a sandbox or in one’s backyard. Remind your children that we will not be singing the Alleluia in Mass until our reason for rejoicing returns: when Christ is risen on Easter.

Another way to bring the spirit of Lent alive for our families is to decorate our homes to reflect the season. Just as a tree in the living room and stockings on the mantle signify the uniqueness of the Christmas season, so should we place visual cues around the home to remind ourselves that this, too, is a special season.

Place a small cactus or collection of succulents in the middle of your kitchen table (the prickly centerpiece reminds us that Jesus is in the desert), cover your crucifixes and images of Jesus with purple cloth, and perhaps bake a salt-dough crown of thorns (see

As children provide acts of loving service for others, or behave well, have them remove a toothpick from the crown, as a symbol of easing Jesus’ suffering.

This activity can be done in conjunction with filling a jar of “sacrifice beans,” whereby children fill the jar with a kidney bean or other such bean for each good deed or loving act performed.

On Easter, they will be delighted to find that their kidney beans have been replaced with those of the much tastier jelly variety.    

One of the best ways to mark the significance of any liturgical season is through the food we eat.

Would Christmas be quite the same without the cookies and cakes? During Lent, we have the obvious prohibition against meat on Fridays, and we often choose to give up a favorite treat, as well.

But we should also be mindful of what we eat during the rest of the week, too, saving especially tasty or favorite meals for any feast days (including Sundays!) that fall during the season.

This isn’t to say that our food cannot still be delicious and nutritious during Lent, but it is a good time to limit impulse buys at the grocery store and to creatively make our way through those long-forgotten items at the back of the pantry and bottom of the freezer.

Perhaps this could also be a good time to institute a new family tradition of volunteering at a soup kitchen or pantry, too, in recognition that one of the best ways to love others is to feed them when they are hungry.  

Lent can also be an excellent time to explore new opportunities for family prayer. Always wanted to institute a family Rosary? Lent is a great time to begin that practice.

Participating in Stations of the Cross on Fridays and perhaps even trying to get to daily Mass more regularly are all great ways to pray more as a family during the Lenten season — and to hopefully establish practices that carry on even beyond Lent.

Use these increased opportunities for family prayer to teach our children that praying for one another is one of the greatest gifts of love that we can bestow upon each other. 

Holy Week also brings with it many new opportunities for creating new family traditions or re-establishing forgotten ones.

Weaving crosses on Palm Sunday — and then hanging them in the home until next Ash Wednesday — and participating in your parish’s Palm Sunday procession are good ways to mark Jesus’ triumphant return into Jerusalem.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it is customary to clean the home in preparation for Easter. It is an especially good time to de-clutter; just as we hope to “de-clutter” and “tidy” up our hearts through prayers and fasting to welcome Jesus upon his resurrection, so, too, should we de-clutter our homes as a show of love for the people who live there.

Parishes have foot-washing services as part of Mass on Holy Thursday, but it is also possible to do one in your own home if your family cannot make it to the liturgy.

Following the foot-washing with a Seder-type meal to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper is also a tradition your children are sure to cherish.

It is easy enough to emulate without being disrespectful of our Jewish brothers and sisters’ Passover meal: Consider serving your family a lamb dish, a flat bread and a salad with bitter greens, with cups of grape juice for the kids and glasses of wine for Mom and Dad.

On Good Friday, consider performing the most unpleasant of the household chores — whatever they may be — to mark the solemn nature of the day.

Also be sure to have a simple meal, again foregoing meat, and consider baking traditional hot-cross buns for dessert.

And while it may be difficult, seriously consider foregoing any Easter activities on Holy Saturday, including egg hunts and the like, until Easter Sunday.

Remind your children of our calling as Christians to be in the world but not of the world and that the true day of celebration is Easter Sunday.

Again, the great challenge with observing Lent as a family is how to keep it from becoming one of drudgery and “mandatory” sacrifice. But I believe that the greatest antidote to that is to emphasize all of the prayers, practices, sacrifices and contemplation as opportunities to grow in Christian love for one another.

This year, let us use St. Valentine’s Day’s confluence with Ash Wednesday to color our Lenten season and all of its practices with love.

With God’s grace, it will become a season that your family looks forward to every year and one that will deepen your faith and the faith of your children for years to come.   

Grace Emily Stark writes

from San Diego, California.