For the Eastern Orthodox Church, Great Lent is the seven week period before Pascha (Easter) during which the faithful fast from certain foods and, more importantly, from sin. In order to enter more fully into the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, we repent through the traditional disciplines of prayer and fasting. Over the next several weeks, I will be posting articles in which I share resources, ideas, and meditations to help us all make ready for Christ’s resurrection–and our own.
Great Lent is here. This Sunday we observed Forgiveness Sunday, and Monday started the Fast in earnest. I always approach the Fast with a feeling of both joy and trepidation.
Joy because I know that my soul, my heart, and my body are longing for a time of deliberate quiet, of a slowed life, of meditation and repentance. Trepidation because I know that repentance, humility and brokenness are often painful and tearful. This is why the Church refers to Great Lent as the Bright Sadness. It is a joyful mourning, a happy repentance that leads from the Cross to the Empty Tomb. There can be no victory of the Resurrection without the utter devastation of the Cross. No celebration of Pascha without the repentance of Lent.
And so we approach Great Lent with joy and trepidation.
Each year I pause before Great Lent to consider how I can help my family and myself have a more intentional, meaningful journey to Pascha. My husband and I pray and discuss it, and we make a plan of sorts. We think of ways that we can help our children (and ourselves) experience the fasting, prayer, almsgiving, spiritual study, and repentance that are central to Lent.
I would like to share that plan with you. But, first I want to give three important caveats:
-This plan is unique to our family and our situation. Our children are young; I work full-time; my husband is a seminarian who is also preparing to defend his dissertation for his doctoral program in a few weeks. All of these things play a part in our decisions as to what things we included or did not include in our plan. Your family’s Lent may look vastly different as your situation is different than ours.
-This is not the “ideal” or “perfect” plan. I am an ordinary, busy mom who struggles with maintaining my patience with my children while trying to live out my faith in an imperfect way. This is by no means the definitive way to observe Lent.
-As always, speak with your spiritual father. I am also (obviously!) not a priest. Be sure to speak with your spiritual father as you think through your family’s plan for Great Lent.
Our Family’s Plan for Great Lent
–My husband and I will fully participate in the church’s prescribed fast. In the Orthodox faith, this means that we will abstain from meat, dairy, wine, and oil from Clean Monday until Pascha (Easter). I will research new fasting recipes (many of which I hope to share here!) to try. I will also pull out family favorites such as Vegan Split Pea Soup, Potato Tacos, and Cilantro Black Bean Salad.
–Our children will observe a modified fast. Because of our children’s young ages (4, 5, and 8), they will still eat some dairy. They will have milk at breakfast and supper, and I will put yogurt into their lunchboxes. However, they will, by default, not eat meat. They are still at the age where they love eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch each day, so we will continue that. Each supper will be a fasting supper–often with beans, lentils, peas, etc.–so they will still have plenty of protein in their diets.
-I am especially excited to try more recipes from Melissa Naasko’s book Fasting as a Family this year. I used Melissa’s worksheets at the back of the book to help me plan out our meals for the first week of Lent already!
-During Lent we will also add the Prayer of St. Ephraim and its accompanying prostrations to our routine. I was amazed a few years ago when our oldest son, then 4, learned the entire prayer through our frequent repetition of it. In addition, we will sing appropriate hymns throughout Lent–for example, “Your Cross We Adore” and “Having Suffered the Passion for Us.”
-Personally, I will be praying the Psalter this year with a group of women on the Holy Cross campus. I am really looking forward to becoming more disciplined about this.
Another key element of Great Lent is almsgiving. During this time of fasting we are called upon to consider the poor and suffering around us. As we have simple meals, we should use the money saved to help those in need.
-Our family will collect and donate canned good items to our son’s school’s Lenten collection–which goes out to our local community. This year I plan to give my oldest a gift card for our local grocery store and let him pick out what he would like to donate. This will be a good lesson in both giving and budgeting. If you are looking for other ways that your family can serve, take a look at 10 Ways Your Children Can Serve Others.
-We will also go through our closets, toy boxes, and books and donate gently used items. Our church has a bin in the lobby and takes donations to local shelters.
4. Spiritual Study
During Lent Orthodox Christians also try to tame outside distractions and focus on the realities of our faith. This means we limit television and other media and read spiritual books and the Scriptures.
Books for the Children:
-We will read Lent! Wonderful Lent! many times at home and take it to church with us.
-Read The Story of Mary, the Mother of God for the Feast of the Annunciation
-Read Pictures of God: A Child’s Guide to Understanding Icons for the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy
-Listen to the Gospel Retold for Younger Children from Ancient Faith Radio before Liturgy each Sunday so that our children are familiar with that day’s Gospel reading.
My Reading Plan:
-Read all four Gospels
-Reread The Way of a Pilgrim, a classic of Orthodox spirituality and The Jesus Prayer
During Lent, Orthodox Christians attend various services more frequently. In addition to Sunday Divine Liturgy, the Church also offers a Presanctified Liturgy mid-week as a means of strengthening believers. Also, many churches offer an Akathist Hymn during the week, some Saturdays are called Soul Saturdays and have a Liturgy for the Departed, and regular Vespers (Saturday evening services) continue.
This schedule can be a bit overwhelming for those with children–our family included.
This year we are blessed to live on the Holy Cross campus and have such quick access to daily services (it is literally a two minute walk to the chapel!). So, we will be attending more services than we have in years past.
-We all attend Sunday Divine Liturgy
-We will all attend Forgiveness Vespers
-My husband and I will both attend at least one part of the Great Canon of St. Andrew during Clean Week
-We will all attend Presanctified Liturgies
-We will all attend the Salutations services
-We will all attend Great Vespers on Saturday evenings.
This means that our children will be going to church 4 times a week, but we believe that this is a good thing. Children learn how to be in church by being in church. You can read more about How We Get Our Children to Behave in Church.
Finally, repentance is a major theme of Great Lent. We repent of our sins, ask God to forgive us, ask others to forgive us, and seek to live a righteous life. While primarily an inward discipline, there are a few things that we want to do as a family:
-We will all attend Forgiveness Vespers in order to ask forgiveness from and offer forgiveness to each member of our parish.
-Both my husband and I will go to confession at least once during Great Lent, as is prescribed by our priest and spiritual father.
-Our oldest son will go to confession at least once.
-Our youngest two children will watch quietly in the back of the church while we are confessing so that they can see what happens during Confession.
I pray that you have a blessed Fast and that our family’s imperfect plan for Lent may encourage and help you. Great Lent is almost here. Let us draw near with joy and trepidation. Let us fully enter into the Bright Sadness.
What will your family be doing for Great Lent? I would love to hear your ideas! Please share in the comments below.
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