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Lenten Customs for the Home

Mardi Gras/Carnival/Shrove Tuesday: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. ‘Mardi Gras” means “fat Tuesday”, & “carnival” means “farewell to meat”, both indicating a feast to use up extra meat & other rich, sweet foods before the fast of Lent. Pancakes are a traditional food for this day in some cultures, dating from a time when even eggs & milk were given up for Lent. “Shrove Tuesday” comes from “shriven”, which was an old word for being forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession.

Ashes: On Ash Wednesday, palms from last year’s palm Sunday are burned & the moistened ashes are applied to our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (or similar words). Ashes are a sign of mourning (we mourn our sin) & of repentance, of burning up the things that will pass away, & turning to God so that we will live with Him forever. Consider having a bowl of ashes at home & talking about what they mean to you.

Confession: The Sacrament of Confession goes very naturally with the Lenten theme of repentance. Once we recognize our sins, we take them to God so that He can heal & cleanse us from them, and give us the grace to avoid the very sins we confessed!

Putting away the “Alleluia” & “Gloria”: These two prayers of praise & celebration are not used at the Mass during Lent unless a Solemnity (such as the Solemnity of St. Joseph or the Annunciation) falls during Lent. As a way of highlighting this sacrifice, we can make a banner or sign of “Alleluia” and/or “Gloria” to ceremonially put away at the beginning of Lent, & bring back out as part of the festive Easter decorations.

Prayer, fasting & almsgiving: the 3 main spiritual exercises the Church recommends for Lent. We draw closer to God in prayer, make sacrifices, & give to those in need. Fasting helps us identify with the hungry, & we can use the money we save to relieve their hunger (almsgiving). Fasting (& abstinence from meat) is required on Ash Wednesday & Good Friday. This means that we eat no more than one full meal, with two smaller meals that together do not add up to a full meal. Exceptions are made if fasting would endanger health (young children, the elderly, the sick & pregnant women don’t have to fast). Consider fasting on bread & water.

Giving something up: We all have things/habits/etc. in our lives that get in our way or weigh us down in our following of Jesus. As He led the way by emptying Himself in becoming Man, and in leaving behind even the necessities of life during His 40 days in the wilderness, Lent is a good time to leave behind the things that have a hold on us, in order to enter into the freedom of the sons of God (see Romans 8:21) and to deepen our trust in our Heavenly Father.

Form a new spiritual good habit: Lent is a good time to start something good, like going to daily Mass, making a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament (in person or in spirit, perhaps with a Spiritual Communion), joining a Bible study or other faith-sharing group, praying for the souls in Purgatory whenever you pass a cemetery, wearing a scapular (& looking up what that means), etc. Ask God what He’s inviting you to do.

Meatless Fridays: During Lent, we are required to abstain from meat on all Fridays (unless the Solemnity of St. Joseph or the Annunciation falls on Friday). Since fish isn’t considered meat (meat was the food of the rich, while fish was the food of the poor), people often have fish for the main course. There are many other meatless options, though, including bean soup, meatless spaghetti, & cheese pizza.

Prayer Before A Crucifix: Praying this before a crucifix on a Lenten Friday (with the usual conditions of Holy Communion the same day, Sacramental Confession within a week before or after, prayers for the pope’s intentions–at least an “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”–and no attachment to sin), makes one eligible for a plenary indulgence:

Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus,
while before Your Face I humbly kneel;
and with burning soul, pray and beseech You to fix deep in my heart
lively sentiments of Faith, Hope and Charity,
true contrition for all my sins and a firm purpose of amendment;
while I contemplate with great love and tender pity Your five wounds,
calling to mind the words which David, Your prophet, said of You, my Jesus:
“They have pierced My hands and My feet, they have numbered all My bones!”Amen.

Spiritual Reading: Feed your soul on the Sacred Scriptures, on lives of the saints or their writings, or on instruction in virtue (literally, “strength”). Christian Patience, The Strength And Discipline Of The Soul: A Course Of Lectures By Bishop Ullathorne is particularly powerful for inspiring the discipline that fosters peace of soul.

Meditation: “Fix your mind on things above, not on things of earth” (Colossians 3:2). Digest the spiritual food God provides for you by mulling it over in your mind and talking to Him about it. Ask Him to show you how to apply it to your life, and resolve to put it into action.

Works of Mercy: Let Jesus continue His public ministry through your daily life. Look for opportunities to practise the works of mercy that He began and that His saints have carried on through the centuries:
Corporal: In Matthew 25:34-40, Tobit
To feed the hungry. (loaves & fishes, Elizabeth of Hungary)
To give drink to the thirsty. (woman at the well, wedding of Cana)
To clothe the naked. (St. Martin of Tours)
To Shelter the Homeless (St. John of God)
To visit the sick. (St. Peter’s mother-in-law)
To visit the imprisoned (St. Catherine of Siena)
To bury the dead. (Tobit)
To instruct the ignorant. (sermon on the mount)
To counsel the doubtful. (“I believe, help my unbelief”)
To admonish sinners. (Pharisees)
To bear wrongs patiently. (Passion)
To forgive offenses willingly. (crucifixion)
To comfort the afflicted. (Widow of Naim)
To pray for the living and the dead (raising of Lazarus)
Stained glass images of these works of mercy can be found here (public domain), here (corporal works of mercy) and here (spiritual works of mercy).

Pretzels: Pretzels are a traditional Lenten food because they are (or can be) only made from flour & water, foods that have always been allowed during Lent. They’re made in the shape of arms crossed over the heart in prayer, as a reminder to pray. Make your own and/or have them as the only snack food for Lent.

Stations of the Cross: The Stations of the Cross are a form of prayer in which we walk the “Via Dolorosa” (Way of Sorrows) with Jesus, retracing His steps from His condemnation by Pilate through His crucifixion & burial (good for a plenary indulgence with the usual conditions). They’re a substitute for being able to walk the actual road Jesus walked in Jerusalem when He carried His Cross. Most parishes have times when the community prays the Stations of the Cross together during Lent, but they can be prayed at any time by anyone, alone or together. There are booklets that give prayers for each station, but those are optional. All you need to do is walk from station to station & reverently think about what happened there. Praying the Stations (officially erected) at any time makes one eligible for a plenary indulgence (with the usual conditions of Confession, Communion, prayer for the pope’s intentions & no attachment to sin). This indulgence can also be offered as an alms to the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Seven Last Words of Jesus: Turn these over in your mind: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34); “Amen I say to you, this day you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43); [to Mary] “Woman, behold your Son”, [to the beloved disciple] “Behold your mother” (John 19:26 & 27); “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46); “I thirst” (John 19:28); It is finished” (John 19:30); “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Penitential Psalms: Pray in sorrow for sin & hope of forgiveness: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 & 143

Home altar: Cover a small table with a violet cloth & items that would aid prayer, such as a religious picture or statue, Bible, crucifix and/or candle. It could be in a “public” spot, so family members see it often & are reminded to pray, or in an out-of-the-way place so they can pray there without being disturbed.

Violet: Since violet is the liturgical color of Lent, violet decorations in the home (tablecloth, pillows, napkins, etc.) and/or wearing violet clothing can be a visible reminder of the season (you can use rose for Laetare Sunday–the 4th Sunday of Lent). An old custom is to cover all religious art with violet cloth during the last two weeks of Lent, since during the last two weeks before His death, Jesus no longer walked openly among the people (in order to avoid premature arrest).

Silence: One way to make it easier to pray is to silence outside noise so that we can more easily hear God’s still, small voice in our hearts. Lent can be a time to turn off the radio, TV & other sources of noise in order to experience the silence Jesus heard in the desert. Another option is to substitute reading aloud as a family from spiritual books (stories of Jesus from the Bible, stories of saints, the book of Lamentations, etc.).

Lenten Scene: Fill a shallow tray or bowl with sand & add rocks, sticks & dried weeds to make it look like a desert as a reminder of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Tie two sticks together in the shape of a cross as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice. Or lay out a sand-colored cloth & scatter rocks & dried weeds on it to look like desert scrub. A standing crucifix could be added if you have one.

Scavenger Hunt: Have family members take turns each day (we did this at supper) finding items symbolic of Jesus’ Passion, reading the Scripture passages that go with them & talking about them. Here are some ideas (or make up your own): toy donkey or donkey from nativity scene (Palm Sunday, Matthew 21:1-7); jacket (throwing cloaks in front of Jesus, Mark 11:1-11); rock (rocks will praise Him, Luke 19:29-40); coins or doves (cleansing the temple, Mark 11: 15-18), sheep (Paschal lamb, Mark 14:12 & Exodus 12: 1-28); pitcher of water (finding room for Last Supper, Matthew 26:17-19); towel (washing of the feet, John 13: 1-17); goblet or unleavened bread (Institution of the Eucharist, Luke 22:14-20); apron (the greatest must be a servant, Luke 22:24-27); 30 nickels, dimes or quarters (pieces of silver, Mathew 26:14-15 & 27:3-9); songbook (songs of praise, Matthew 26:30); houseplant or olives (Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Matthew 26:30, 36-39); sweatband or antiperspirant (bloody sweat, Luke 22:44); pillow (disciples fell asleep, Mark 14: 32-41); flashlight (torch, John 18:3); candy kiss (Judas’ kiss, Luke 22:47-48); rope (Jesus’ arrest, John 18:1-12); running shoes (disciples all ran away, Matthew 26:31 & 56); blindfold yourself (trial before Sanhedrin, Mark 14:53-65); feather (cock crow, Mark 14:29-31, 72); king or crown (Herod, Luke 23, 6-12), toy people (crowd, Luke 23:13-25), stick or whip (beating, Mark 15:17); thorn (crown of thorns, Mark 15:17); bowl of water (Pilate washing, Matthew 27:24 ); log or board (carrying the cross, Luke 23:26-31), bandaid (Jesus fell 3 times on the way to Calvary; not in Scripture); handkerchief or dishtowel (Veronica wipes Jesus’ face; not in Scripture); bottle of aspirin (tried to drug Jesus, Mark 15:23); nail (crucifixion, Luke 23:33); dice (soldiers casting lots, John 19:23); ski mask (Jesus was crucified with thieves, Luke 23:39-43); picture or statue of Mary (Jesus entrusted Mary to John, John 25-27); sponge or vinegar (vinegar offered to Jesus, John 19:29); turn out lights for a minute or two (darkness, Matthew 27:45); tear paper (temple veil torn in two, Matthew 27:51); shake a box of rocks (earthquake, Matthew 27:52); skewer (lance, John 19:34); heart (Jesus’ Heart was pierced, John 19:31-37); gauze or white fabric (shroud, Matthew 27:59); wheat (if a grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit, John 12:24); rock (rolled against the tomb, Mark 16:4); spices or perfume (for burial, Luke 23:55-56).

“Mothering Sunday”: The antiphon for the 4th Sunday of Lent begins “Rejoice, Jerusalem!”, and since the Church (represented by Jerusalem) is our Mother, this became a day to honor mothers, giving them flowers and a cake and asking for their blessing–the original, Christian, Mother’s Day.

Holy Week Services: Plan to attend daily Mass during Holy Week (the week before Easter), especially the evening Mass of Holy Thursday & adoration of the Cross on Good Friday (there is never Mass on Good Friday). Holy Thursday, Good Friday & Holy Saturday are all one service (called “Triduum”, or “three days”), reliving Jesus’ last hours with Him, with “intermissions” to go home to eat & sleep.


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