For five years now, ever since I saw my oldest child, in her infancy, marked with an ashen cross on Ash Wednesday, a realization has been dawning: I am surprisingly hesitant to introduce my children to the less rosy parts of the Church’s faith. From the martyrdom experienced by the saints to the magnitude of Jesus’ suffering, I find myself wanting to shy away, to simplify, to sweep under the rug. Some of these difficult realities comprise focal points of the Lenten season that have deterred me from including my children in any sort of Lenten practice until very recently. Indeed, this season has proven a hard one for me to make toddler-friendly. Lent lacks the intoxicating anticipation that Advent holds as we wait for Christmas. It is not a time of joy and exultant “Gloria”s or “Alleluia!”s, which are exclaimed throughout the Christmas and Easter seasons. Instead, we are faced, during Lent, with the desert, where Jesus fasted and overcame temptations, and with the Cross, which he journeyed toward bloodied, bruised, and humiliated. It is a wonderful privilege to introduce children to new concepts and ideas, but it is quite difficult for me to tell my small, round-faced little ones – who love Jesus and his Church with a spontaneous innocence – about these somber, painful things. Further, facing the fact that these dear creatures my husband and I have cooperated with the Lord to bring into being are also sinful beings is a somber, painful reality for me. I realize it anew every Ash Wednesday, and it is all I can do not to cry when I see the ashen crosses on their tiny foreheads.
Still, I know better than to try to shelter myself or my family from these realities. I recognize that bringing my children into the desert and to the foot of the Cross is part of my job as their primary and first catechist. I also recognize that a multitude of spiritual riches are found in these places–and, naturally, I do not wish to deprive my children of the opportunity to discover these.
As Lent crept closer this year, I pondered how to begin leading my children – the oldest of whom is only in preschool – on a Lenten journey for the very first time. How much would these kids really be able to understand? Would they be capable of grasping Easter joy come April if we delved into the harsh truths of Lent, or would they be unduly haunted by images of their Jesus suffering when Easter morning dawned?
I knew that if I was going to have any chance of them understanding, I needed to keep things close to home. While I am a firm believer in bringing children to Mass and including them in parish life, despite their squirming, lack of social etiquette, and all-around neediness, I did not feel that bringing three toddlers into quiet, prayerful gatherings outside of Mass, such as Adoration or the Stations of the Cross, would be beneficial to anyone, least of all the kids whom I was trying to shepherd along to some idea of why Lent exists and how it helps to make Easter stunningly bright.
So, what could we do at home that would help? I came across an idea online for praying the Stations of the Cross at home that didn’t require very much time or artistic ability, and I set about that. Preparations took less than an hour, and then, we were ready to give this new Lenten family practice a try.
I purchased a 12 pack of unscented votive candles and printed CatholictotheMax’s Emmerich Stations of the Cross poster for images of the Stations that would easily fit on the candles. Since there are 14 Stations, but I was unable to find additional votive candles, my husband and I got a little creative with the last two Stations. But for the first 12, I cut the images from the poster print-out and used Mod Podge to adhere them onto the candles.
Then, I purchased a few different Stations of the Cross prayer booklets, since I wasn’t sure which version would resonate.
As soon as we set up the candles on our dining room table after dinner on the First Friday of Lent, I realized I should have put the images of the Stations on both sides of the votive candles, so that folks on either side of the table could see them. But what we had, the way it was, was good enough for us to get started.
Our one and half year old is not old enough for crayons or colored pencils yet, so we left her in her high chair with a spoon to play with. To our five and a half year old daughter, I handed a coloring sheet of the First Station of the Cross, and to our three and a half year old son, my husband gave a coloring sheet of the Second Station. I hoped that this would occupy their little hands and keep them from interrupting the Stations too often with a request to play, watch a movie, or do something more exciting.
I wasn’t expecting much besides boredom, confusion, and fidgeting on the part of the children, and exasperation on the part of my husband and me. But away we went, on our first family journey toward the Cross.
Our five year old colored her page diligently. When we had read through every Station in our booklets*, extinguishing the candles and most of the lights in the room to read the last two in darkness, our daughter pointed out how she had included details like blood on Jesus’ forehead in her picture. I felt like my own heart was being pricked by a few thorns as the child who had always inspired me to find joy began to realize some of the evil and cruelty with which Jesus was treated. But I was proud, too, of how involved in this Lenten practice she had quickly become. By the following Friday, in fact, I was surprised to see her following along in her prayer book, turning the page whenever I did, instead of holding it open to just the image she was coloring that night (the Third Station of the Cross).
Our three year old boy scribbled on his coloring page, giving it more color and attention than I had thought he would, and he was proud to have been a participant in family prayer by the time we were done for the evening. I wasn’t sure he got very much beyond that feeling of inclusion from the experience, but he pointed at the large crucifix behind the altar when we arrived at Mass two Sundays later and said, “Jesus died on the Cross, and he had blood on him!” I knew that this exclamation was the result of processing all he had been hearing during our Stations of the Cross “meditations” (if you can call a time meditative which includes squirming kids, rustling paper, and adults shushing out-of-turn talking). The following Friday, he, too, was making an attempt at following along in a booklet (I found that the Stations of the Cross for children booklet, written by a Religious of the Cenacle, did the best job of evoking a clear picture of what happened to Jesus and how it connects to us, his followers. The reflections are addressed as real-time petitions to Our Lord – which I feel is especially easy for little minds to grasp).
In our dining room, I have hung a poster with all 14 Stations on it, and I am adding the kids’ coloring sheets as they finish them, two on every Friday of Lent. By the time Easter comes, we will have filled in the entire display, come to a fuller understanding of just what Jesus underwent for us, and learned to appreciate Easter as stunningly, beautifully bright; an amazing grace given to all of us who mark our foreheads and enter the desert, some with little understanding why, but all with the opportunity to learn and grow in holiness.
*This year, our Stations of the Cross meditations are very simple and very much an abridged version of what is done in most parishes. We wanted the kids to have a clear idea of what happened to Jesus, so we omitted any additional prayers, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, or Glory Be as we moved from Station to Station. We wanted a clear story to emerge for our children, and we think that simplifying the prayers and meditations was helpful in this regard. If you wish to incorporate this activity into your family’s Lenten practices, do it in a way that works for you, especially if you have very small children you are thinking will not sit still for a long period of time. As our own children get older, we will follow the prayer booklets more fully, and we look forward to someday bringing our entire family to church to pray the Stations with our faith community.