Lenten Sacrifices: How Do We Explain Them to Our Kids?

crucifixion of jesus

As we begin Lent, I’m thinking this week about Lenten sacrifices. What is the purpose of our Lenten sacrifices and how do we communicate to our children about that purpose?

When I returned to the Church many years ago, I had very gloomy image of Lent.  I saw Lenten sacrifices as something very negative, something to dread. I am grateful that my spiritual director helped me understand Lenten sacrifices in a relational way.  He explained that quite often our attachments to things or behaviors are getting in the way of our relationship with others, including God. So we make a special effort during Lent to put aside these attachments so they don’t distract us from caring for ourselves and our relationships.  This dying to the self is a practice that we will continue for our entire lives, but Lent is a good time for a special “house cleaning”; we can pause and really look at where we are with God.

Of course, Lenten sacrifices are also a means to charitable giving.  Traditionally, Christians abstained from meat during Lent partly so that they could use the money they saved on meat to give to the poor, to those who couldn’t afford meat.  I think we’ve lost this original meaning in Catholic culture, so that others see us as a self-punishing, masochistic bunch.

So, with my own kids, I try to remind them of this deeper meaning of Lenten sacrifices. We sacrifice things that are hurting our relationships or are preventing us from growing closer to God. We can also use the money we save on desserts or toys to meet a need in our community.  If our kids are too young to understand this concept, I wonder why we are encouraging them to give up desserts or their toys.  My concern: If our primary explanation to our kids for Lenten sacrifices goes something like “Jesus suffered, so we want to suffer with him,” I wonder if we are sending an unfortunate message to them. Are we saying that Jesus wants them to suffer because he suffered? I think I had this impression as a young woman and that is why my first Lent after returning to the Church was not liberating in the way it is for some folks.

 When my friend Kathryn’s mom had cancer, Kathryn was going to shave her hair off as her mom faced chemotherapy. All her hair – gone! She was doing this to walk in solidarity with her mom when her hair began to fall out.  She was willing to suffer with her mom not for the suffering’s sake, but because she loved her mother and wanted to support her in her time of need.  She didn’t want to suffer so that she would love her mom more; she was willing to suffer because she already loved her mom so much that she couldn’t help but make this offering. Kathryn’s mom ended up seeking alternative cancer treatment and never had chemotherapy after all, but Kathryn’s love for her mom and her willingness to shave off her hair to show her mom that “we’re in this together” is very different from Kathryn wanting to suffer or to get cancer herself so that she could know and love her mom better. She already knew and loved her mom, and the offering of sacrifice was a mature and extraordinary way of showing it.

Some of you will disagree with me here, and I welcome your engagement on this issue. (But please be respectful and civil. My feelings can be hurt like everyone else’s.) Maybe Kathryn’s sacrifice is exactly like giving up candy or beer or computer games. Maybe giving up these things is precisely the kind of solidarity Kathryn wanted to show to her mother and that Jesus wants from us. But it seems different to me.  I, as a grown-up, am still moving to that place spiritually where I want to identify fully with the suffering Christ. That is at the top of the spiritual maturity ladder and I’m nowhere near that.

My goal as the spiritual director of my kids is to help them love Jesus more, to draw closer to him, to want to know him as a real person who cares about them. Yes, I hope they eventually love Jesus enough to die for him on their own cross, but they are still so young. First I need to lead them to love and to mercy, and then to a willingness to live in pain for Jesus. But I guess don’t want to start with the pain. I don’t think the pain will make them love Jesus more.  The fact is, life brings with it suffering. Ordinary life gives me plenty of opportunity to teach my kids about offering their sufferings to God. I don’t want them to seek out suffering or to think in some way that they need to want suffering in order to be a good Christian.

Perhaps I can do with my own little directees as my spiritual director did with me when I returned to the Church: I can talk to them about the things in their lives that are making it harder for them to love themselves, other people, and God. I can lead them in love, with gentleness, to practice little sacrifices in these areas. But I would still want to teach this in the context of their growing affection for Jesus.

 What do you think?

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