Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, Ash Wednesday Service)
A New and Contrite Heart
Lent is the forty day period (not counting Sundays) before the celebration of Easter. In preparation for the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection, which culminates at the Easter Vigil service, Christians all over the world use this time to fast and to meditate on God's word. Sadly, much of the tradition of this holy time has been lost in American Christian culture. In fact, this prayer talking about "sins" and "wretchedness" makes many Christians uncomfortable. We prefer to focus on the love of God and the abundance of His grace while forgetting the serious cost of that grace.
Before I joined the Anglican communion, I had never really thought about Lent. I certainly never heard about it growing up in rural East Tennessee, much less practiced it. But as I wrote in my posts about Advent, I have come to appreciate the church calendar and the rhythms of the church year over the past few years. Lent is no exception. It is the most serious time of the church year, when we prepare for the Passion week, the remembering of Christ's suffering and death and His triumphant resurrection. It is only fitting then, that I enter this time praying the above prayer, seeking a new and contrite heart, which is the only way to see the depth of my sin and the even greater depth of God's forgiveness and love in Christ.
Our Lenten Fast
So how do I do this? How do we as a family with small children do this? Advent is so much easier. It is a fun time, a time of preparing for a birth. We clean and decorate the house, make gifts, have calendars to count down the days, tell stories every night, and generally have good time preparing our hearts for the celebration of Christ's birth. Not that Advent is without its serious side, but overall it is a preparation for a party.
Lent, on the other hand, is a preparation for a death. Of course, we will celebrate God's triumph over death on Easter, with the requisite feast and colored eggs and probably even a chocolate bunny (though I am not sure I can fit that into the Easter story). But we must first prepare and walk through the scenes of Christ's last supper, betrayal, and death in our collective church worship. Since I became an Anglican, Lent for me has usually been a time of fasting from something (not always food) as a way of self-denial and of making room for God to speak to my heart, show me my sins, and lead me toward His grace. I also tend to use it to focus on one virtue I would like to cultivate, such as gratefulness or patience. The times of fasting are great reminders to pray for strength to grow in that area of my life.
This year, my husband and I have decided to fast from eating out. To some of you that may seem silly, either because eating out is something you can't afford anyway or because your life is too busy to do anything else. For us, this fast comes from reflecting on the ways our lifestyle has changed over the past few years. For most of our married life, we have been poor, living rent-free in other people's homes. Both of our boys were born when we were living with other people, and we have never had much money to speak of. That all changed in the past couple of years, but for a while, our lifestyle remained simple. We have noticed our spending habits changing recently, and in order to be better stewards of our resources, we have decided to fast in this one area of eating out, hoping it will reveal to us other ways in which we waste resources.
Chick-fil-A and Lent for Children
"Sounds great," all my mommy friends are saying, " but how do you involve your kids in Lent? Isn't focusing on sin and the cross and little much for a three-year-old, much less a two-year-old?" I admit that I don't expect Hobbes to understand much that is going on at Lent, though I do hope he'll pick up a different tenor in our prayer times. And as for Calvin, on a basic level, this means no more Chick-fil-A for a while. We have talked to him about it a bit, but I am not sure how much he gets yet, since this is his first year participating in a Lenten fast with us. I am sure he will catch on as he did with Advent, especially when we dare to drive by a Chick-fil-A without stopping to get "a four-count kids meal with fruit and a chocolate milk, please." (Yeah, we really do eat there that often.)
So the answer is that I think Calvin will get the fasting part of Lent, and I hope that it will be a way for all of us, including him, to think about ways to conserve our resources and use them to help others. On the level of cultivating a virtue, I think this will help me to be less wasteful and careless in general, planning ahead so that we have quality time over quality meals at home and creating a more simple, peaceful environment for our family.
But I am looking for practical ways to help Calvin participate even more in Lent, and I am hoping to hear from y'all on this one. We have already decided to center our evening prayer times on repentance and to use the Crucifixion icon during our prayers. (We usually lay out an icon of the Resurrection, along with a cross and a lit candle during prayer time.) I am hoping that hearing his parents confess the sins of their day will lead Calvin into confession of his own.
But I think I need to do something else to cultivate an awareness of what sin really means in the life of a three and a half year old. I mean, I want him to understand the love of God above all and to be secure in that. At the same time, he is old enough to understand disobedience and God's guidance and correction. I have wanted to be more intentional about encouraging good behaviors, like doing a job without whining, and I was thinking of using a chart with stickers for good behavior as a visual cue for him. Since Lent is coming up, I thought having Calvin help me to think through a few behaviors and make the chart might be a good way to give him ownership of this time and prepare his own heart. Is this crazy? Theologically unsound? A good idea? Let me know.
That is about all I have for now. Calvin already got really into the Passion and Easter stories last year and loved the services, but I want to bring him even further along this year, helping him to participate in Lent. I'd love to hear what you are doing. And while you are at it, write your own post before midnight on the 3rd (that's tomorrow) and enter it in the Lenten Carnival.