It was Lent, and our six-year-old, Ellen, was busily drawing a picture of herself standing next to the cross. She looked up, struck by a sudden idea. “Is it okay if I draw myself with my hand on Jesus?” she wanted to know.
“It certainly is,” I replied. Ellen grew very excited at the thought, and then we had a good discussion about different ways we can touch Jesus through prayer and service to the poor.
In our family, Lenten projects centered on the cross have themselves become favorite ways to touch Jesus, because they set the stage for sharing our faith in day-to-day life.
They give us the opportunity to focus together on his suffering, death, and resurrection and to see every trouble in light of God’s saving action. My husband and I want our children to know that no problem is beyond the scope of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us—not death, divorce, drugs, poverty, temptations, natural disasters, or anything else they may encounter. And so, every Lent, we explore the meaning of the cross.
Here are some cross projects that have become Boucher family favorites. Perhaps your family will enjoy them, too.
From “Trouble Tree” to Tree of Life. The “trouble tree” provides a visual focus for intercessory prayer during Lent. It’s simple: just a bare tree branch placed in a container filled with plaster or sand. Near it, we keep a supply of long, thin strips of paper on which we write the names of people who are looking for work, fighting sickness, facing tests, or undergoing other challenges. We use scissors to curl each strip, then place it around one of the branches.
Since we keep the “tree” right near our kitchen table, it’s a daily prayer and discussion starter. Anyone who adds a petition is encouraged to talk about the need; sometimes this leads to fruitful sharing. I remember when one of our grade-schoolers was concerned about her teacher, who was eight months pregnant and feeling exhausted. Our daughter wanted to pray, but also to express support. We discussed various ideas, and she settled happily on buying a gift for the new baby.
Our daily prayer beside the tree is very simple. We begin with the Sign of the Cross, mention a few petitions, and end with a short prayer:
Jesus, we know you came to love us, to forgive us, and to make us new. We give you all of our troubles, large and small. Help us as we walk with you now on your way of the cross. Amen.
On Good Friday, we talk about how the cross became the “tree of life” through Jesus’ rising from the dead. We place all our curled-up prayers around the base of the tree and spray paint them green. We thank Jesus for hearing us, and we imagine him embracing each person we prayed for. Sometimes, we add butterflies and flowers to our new “tree of life.”
The Crowded Cross. This idea arose many years ago, one Good Friday when we buried my grandfather, Walter Young. Liturgical directives at the time did not allow us to have a funeral Mass or to sing uplifting songs on that day, which made us keenly aware of how the disciples must have felt on the first Good Friday. And so this activity features Jesus on a cross that also includes his disciples.
We begin Lent by exploring the San Damiano Cross, made popular by St. Francis of Assisi. This is the icon-crucifix he was praying in front of when Jesus called him to “rebuild my church.” St. Francis liked the cross so much that he prayed with it often.
We like it too. In this depiction, Jesus is not the lonely, desolate figure we see on most crucifixes. Rather, he is surrounded by angels and by the people who loved him on earth, including those who stood at the foot of the cross. He is a transfigured Jesus with a golden halo, and he stands triumphantly before a black rectangular tomb.
First Impressions. Every Lent, we look at the San Damiano Cross and talk about St. Francis and the story of the image. If you have a child like our Nolan, who is a middle-school social studies enthusiast, this discussion will elicit many questions: Who is St. Francis? When did he live? Did he meet any kings?
Then, looking at the cross itself, we ask the children, “Who do you recognize?” With young children, we might start by making it a game: “Let’s find everyone who’s wearing blue. . . . Can you find the people who are talking to each other?” And always, each of us shares what we especially like about this icon.
Digging deeper. Just exploring each of the figures and objects depicted on the San Damiano Cross can make for many interesting Lenten discussions. There are thirty-three figures in this icon, including God the Father (represented by a hand), Jesus, Mary, the apostle John, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, the Roman centurion, fourteen angels, some unidentified figures (possibly saints), and a rooster.
You might explore each person represented on the cross by reading the gospel passages where they appear. And for help in identifying the figures and what they mean, see www.franciscanfriarstor.com/archive/stfrancis/stf_san_damiano_cross.htm and www.stdavidtheking.com/Tours/crosstour.htm. Or use the booklet by Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR: The San Damiano Cross: An Explanation (available from the EWTN Religious Catalogue: Call 1-800-854-6316).
What was it like? The personal aspect of this project emerges as we try to imagine what it was like for the people represented to be with Jesus—both in his death and his resurrection. What did Mary see, hear, and feel? What about the centurion, Mary Magdalene, and St. John? And what was it like for Jesus to have them nearby?
Then we imagine ourselves there along with them. We place ourselves at the foot of the cross, answering the question posed by the old spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” We express our desire to be near Jesus and the saints in our daily struggles. We also ask Jesus to help us receive the new life and power that he gives us through his cross.
Draw yourself in. After sharing some of these thoughts, we create a “San Boucher cross” that we use as a focus for our Lenten family prayer. On a large poster board, we trace an outline of the San Damiano Cross with only Jesus in the middle (If there are no artists in your family, just print a copy of the cross off the Internet, and paste only the Christ figure onto your poster.) Then each family member draws themself near Jesus—or pastes in their photos.
Even this hands-on part of the project can stimulate good discussions—like the one that followed Ellen’s question about touching Jesus. And I remember how little Betty’s innocent query—“How are we all going to fit in the picture?”—got us talking about God’s love for all mankind.
They Can Get It. Not long ago, I gave our five-year-old granddaughter some blue rosary beads. She especially liked the crucifix, so we talked about how Jesus died and rose for us. She had lots of questions, but was satisfied enough with my answers to put the beads around her neck. She was still wearing them a few days later, when I got a call that my brother-in-law had died. As I cried on my daughter’s shoulder, I felt a hand tugging at my sleeve.
“Mémère, look at me!” my granddaughter insisted. When I did, she lifted up the crucifix and said, “Mémère, did you forget about Jesus?” Young as she was, she had grasped the fundamental importance of always looking to the cross of Christ.
May these Lenten projects help you to do the same.
Therese Boucher is an author and religious educator. She and her husband, John, have five children and four grandchildren.