Preparing the Family for Great Lent

By Iryna Galadza

Last Sunday, the soft and somber sound of The Rivers of Babylon hinted at the approaching season of repentance.  The familiar Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment prepare us for the spiritual journey of the Great Fast, a journey facilitated by liturgical services, spiritual reading, Lenten missions, fasting and prayer.  This season of great challenges (when embraced with joy) brings great spiritual rewards. What about our children?  How do they fit into the demanding spiritual disciplines of this holy season? What can parents do to help their children – even the littlest ones – experience the period of the Great Fast on a deeper level, a level that goes beyond the usual decorating of Easter eggs (pysanky)and preparing a new outfit for Easter Sunday?  How do we root our children in the joyous discipline of this Great Fast so that it becomes for them an absolutely essential part of the rhythm of their life?   We must speak to them about the mystery of their faith – about Christ’s death and resurrection, about repentance and new life – in the language they know best, the language of the senses.

We might begin with a visual message.  The Great Fast is a time for change.  In church, the color of altar vestments changes from bright to dark and festive embroideries are put away.  At home, the icon corner is tidied and pussy willows (loza) from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned.  The Prayer of St. Ephraim is taped to the wall near the icons and pictures of deceased members of the family to be remembered in prayer might be placed near the icon corner.  Embroideries are taken down, washed, starched and put away, ready to bring out for Pascha. Decorated eggs, so often left out on display year-round, are also placed out of sight.  Covering the television with a cloth might be a reminder of the family’s commitment to fast from this visual distraction.  The house is tidied – somewhat bare- inviting its inhabitants to change their routine, to replace television with books or conversation and to be more diligent in their prayer.  The absence of familiar decorations in the home – the “emptiness” – is a constant reminder that this is a time of year that is set apart for the very special purpose of refocusing our life on Christ, who fills the emptiness in us.

A visual “toning down” needs to be accompanied by an auditory one.  The sound of blearing radios, televisions and noisy computer games assault the ears, disrupt interior peace and affect the behavior of adults and children alike.  Older children need guidance in choosing appropriate music for listening.  The family might agree to observe periods of “quiet time” on certain days.  Perhaps, supper could begin by reading aloud from the Lives of the Saints or stories from the Bible.  Take care to choose literary versions that are appropriate for the age of your children or simply tell the stories in your own words and discuss the pearls of wisdom hidden in them.  Children need to experience the haunting sounds of Lenten hymns.  Bring them to church for the extraordinary liturgical services of Lent  (tempering frequency of attendance with the age of your child) and give them the opportunity to fall in love with such ancient melodies as “Let my prayer arise like incense before you…” so that as adults they might thirst for these and await the Great Fast with great anticipation.

It is often a fragrance that evokes for adults a memory of childhood.  The fragrances that surround activities during the Great Fast are many:  incense during prayer in church and at home, lilies at the services of holy week, paska baking in the oven, fresh spring air that flows through the open windows as the home is being cleaned for the feast, pungent egg dyes and melting beeswax.  Involve the children in all of these activities, so that their little noses might be close to the fragrances that will bond them for life to the rituals that heighten the anticipation of Pascha.  Do not protect them from getting their hands sticky with dough or stained with dyes, for they need to touch and experience all that this holy season has to offer.

One of the most challenging aspects of the Great Fast is the fasting.  If adults have difficulty adjusting to simpler meals and different tastes, what can we expect from children?  Most important here is the attitude of the parents toward their own fasting.  If seen as a burden, all of the benefits of this spiritual exercise are lost.  Fasting is a challenge, but it need not be a burden.  It must never be presented strictly as a duty to suddenly be assumed at the magic age of 12.  Fasting is a privilege, to be practiced out of love, increasing the measure of sacrifice in appropriate degrees throughoutchildhood and beyond. When approached with a positive attitude, fasting presents an invaluable opportunity to train children in the virtue of self-control.  Plant the seeds of humility, by teaching children not to boast of their fasting nor be critical of those who do not observe the fast.  Teach them to offer and receive hospitality graciously, without drawing attention to their fasting.  Be reasonable when setting dietary expectations, taking into account the nutritional demands of growing bodies and the health and maturity of the children.  For little children, the absence of sweet treats from their diets is a big sacrifice.  While drawing children closer to keeping the prescribed fast, take great care to set goals that are achievable, thus encouraging acceptance of greater challenges.  Once children have experienced sacrifice, they come closer to appreciating Christ’s sacrifice for us.

The challenges of the Great Fast can only be met with the grace that accompanies prayer and reception of the Holy Communion.  Memorize the Prayer of St. Ephraim and pray it with your children daily, making the accompanying prostrations (poklony).  Feed them with the Body and Blood of Christ so that they may “taste and see how good the Lord is” who suffered for the sake of giving us new life.  Teach little children to ask for forgiveness of those they have hurt and offer it graciously to those who seek it from them.  Great Lent is a most appropriate time to prepare children for their First Confession and review with older ones the process of examining their conscience in preparation for their Easter Confession, which they will approach with confidence when presented with the good example of their parents.

The more effort invested teaching our children to live the Great Fast in a holistic way, involving all the senses and faculties God has given them, the more rooted they will be in their faith.  When the Great Fast no longer seems “long enough” – when you anticipate it with gladness and it becomes an indispensable part of the rhythm of your life – you will know that your efforts have been blessed.  Then, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection will be accompanied with indescribable joy!

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