Often Great Lent is taught as a series of “shoulds” – we should go to Church, we should fast, we should pray, we should give alms. This approach focuses on “duty” and can have a negative connotation. We need an attitude adjustment. This year, try for a loving response to what our Lord has done for us.
Step 1: What’s involved in Preparation?
Ask family members how they have prepared for something important. Younger children may remember a piano or dance recital, a sports competition or a test in school. Teens may focus on getting a driver’s license. Parents may reflect on preparing for their wedding day or the birth of their first child.
Whatever the experience, ask what was involved in the preparation period. Determine whether both knowledge and practice/action were required. Guide the discussion to allow each family member to share his/her story of preparation. Ask how each felt during the process and after.
Originally, Great Lent was the final preparation of the catechumens for their baptism at Pascha. The catechumens would fast, pray, study, and do good works. The rest of the community joined the catechumens as a time for renewing their baptismal commitment to Christ. While the catechumenate is not as common in most Orthodox parishes, since most Orthodox Christians enter the Church through infant baptism, we continue the practices of Great Lent as our personal preparation for Pascha.
Step 2: What Do We Know About Great Lent?
In this step a variety of methods can be used to teach how to prepare for Pascha in ways that are appropriate for your children.
Review the biblical accounts of the Israelites wandering in the desert (Exodus 14-20) and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4). These are traditional biblical themes of Great Lent. Study some of the Old Testament passages about the Messiah (Isaiah 11, Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9, the Book of Jonah, and others). The new complete Orthodox Study Bible has helpful footnotes and articles.
Examine the special services and prayers of Great Lent. The Pre-Sanctified Liturgies, the Akathist Hymn, and the Canon of St. Andrew are integral parts of the Lenten liturgical life. Talk about the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim, fasting, and the themes of the Sundays before and during Lent. Many helpful resources are available: Sunday bulletins, the parish library, your priest or Church school director. Use the Internet. Go to the Archdiocese website, Biblical Studies, Great Lent & Holy Week, Theology or Worship. Books like Great Lent and Of Water and the Spirit by Alexander Schmemann, The Lenten Spring by Thomas Hopko, the Orthodox Study Bible and others are available from several distributors of Orthodox materials.
Step 3: Focus on the children’s response to the message of Great Lent.
Then answer the question, “How will we prepare for Pascha this year during Great Lent?” Decide what you will do as a family and what you will do individually.
For example, parents and teens may choose a more rigorous level of fasting but everyone in the family will fast at some level. The Church offers a rule to which we strive: no meat, fish, wine, dairy products, olive oil. Wine and olive oil are permitted on Saturdays The degree to which we keep the rule comes with spiritual growth and practice, but it can begin when children are young.
But fasting is not limited to food. Throughout the writings of Church Fathers and Mothers we read that we must also “fast from the tongue” – watch what comes out of our mouths as well as what goes into our mouths. This requires as much effort at times as does fasting from food.
There’s also “fasting with the arms and legs” - keeping from evil action; and “fasting with the eyes” – protecting oneself from what is not edifying - surfing through TV channels and viewing a music video, movie preview, or any of a number of other images that pull one away from godly thinking.
Great Lent is the time to increase your family’s frequency of receiving the Eucharist, if it is not already your practice. If a family has never attended a pre-Sanctified Liturgy, decide together to attend, and even to prepare to receive the Eucharist.
Preparation to receive the Eucharist includes prayer, fasting and especially since it is the Lenten Fast, the Sacrament of Confession.
In nearly all our parishes, there are Saturday of the Souls liturgies where we pray for the dead. If it is your practice to prepare the boiled wheat for memorials, or one you wish to begin, involve your children in the preparation.
Save money individually or as a family to donate to a local charity or the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. The Mission Center offers a collection box that can be the visual focus of your effort. Children can be encouraged to save from their allowance, gift monies, special treats, or lunches. Families can donate monies they would have spent for movies, video rentals or eating out. In either case, some sacrifice is to be involved.
Prayer and Study
Turn off, or at least limit, the TV. This will provide time for prayer and the study of a book of the Bible as a family. The footnotes and special articles in the Orthodox Study Bible are of great help.
With elementary-aged children, use the Children’s Bible Reader published by the Greek Archdiocese, or other children’s bibles sold by the Department of Religious Education. There are several books in the Arch Book Series that deal with the Paschal story. Plus, there are religious videos or ones with moral themes.
Consider using the newfound time to play games such as Bible Pictionary (senior or junior). Bibleopoly, and Bible trivia games.
In a society that underestimates the value of discipline and obedience, the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church appear antiquated and “unnormal.” But from our perspective this is “the norm.” As St. Paul reminds us, we are to “live in the world” but not be “of the world.”
Christ wants us to transform the world around us. Strive to live “the true norm.”