Godly Play: The Circle of the Christian Year

Posted on July 18th, 2011

In the corner of a Sunday school classroom, behind a child-sized altar appointed with cloth, cross, candles, snuffer, and Bible, a large square of gold-colored felt hangs on the wall. Small felt squares, too many to count with a casual eye, form a circle filling the gold background to its edges. These are gathered together in clusters of varying quantities of blue, white, green and purple in no identifiable pattern. An onlooker would wonder at its purpose. I wonder what the colors mean. There is one square of bright red standing alone in the circle.

Only a black felt arrow extending from the circle’s center helps identify this colorful classroom accessory. When the Sunday school class begins, one of the children moves the arrow forward one square to one that represents this particular Sunday of the church year. The square is the same color as the cloth draped over the classroom altar, the same color as the paraments in the church’s sanctuary. The colors represent the church seasons. This wall hanging is a timepiece, a calendar, a clock of sorts. I wonder why the church tells time with colors.

As with a traditional clock, this circle has no end. Its ending blends seamlessly into a beginning making the time it measures eternal. This particular timepiece measures, not minutes and hours, but weeks and seasons; not ordinary time, but sacred time, the church’s time. It marks the seasons of God’s Story one Sunday at a time. This timepiece celebrates the Circle of the Church Year and is one of the educational instruments of a spiritual formation ministry called Godly Play.

Godly Play is an innovative approach to Christian education and spiritual development for children ages 3 through 12. Developed by Episcopal priest Jerome Berryman, it has been in church classrooms since 1972 and is currently used internationally in classrooms of all denominations. Using a Montessori philosophy, Godly Play creates a community around children that honors their faith journey and their individual timing of connecting with God’s Story. Quality crafted hands-on materials that represent stories of God invite children into theses stories through wonder and play. When they and the adults who work with them enter these stories they enter a world open to the mystery of the presence of God. I wonder what happens in the church when you see these colors.

The Circle of the Church Year

One of these stories is a game-sized wooden version of the gold felt timepiece hanging on the wall. Fifty-two liturgically-colored wooden blocks fit into a circular track carved into a wooden base. The teacher, or storyteller, retrieves the story materials from the shelf. The children watch so they will know where to find them if they want to work with them later during their activity time, called work time.

Having committed this scripted story to memory, yet making it her own, the storyteller presents the story of the great times of the church year. From the circular track she removes two white blocks and a red one representing the mysteries of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost; then the blocks for the times of getting ready to enter these mysteries. Often we walk right though a mystery without ever noticing it, so the church sets aside time for us to get ready.

The mystery of Christmas is go great that it takes four weeks to get ready for it. These weeks, Advent, make up the season of blue, the color of waiting and hope (or purple if that is your church’s practice). Easter is an even greater mystery than Christmas. It takes six weeks to get ready for Easter. These weeks are called Lent and make up the season of purple, a serious color and the color of kings. Easter is so great that one Sunday cannot hold it. It keeps on going for six more weeks, helping us to get ready for the mystery of Pentecost.

As the storyteller presents the seasons, she lays out the blocks in three rows: Christmas, then four Advents before it; Easter, then six Lents before it; and Pentecost, then six white Sundays of Easter before it. Finally she lays out the great, green, growing Sundays in several rows of their own.
After the storyteller organizes the church year into its great times, she returns the blocks to the wooden base as she explains what each of the seasons mean. Part of the great, green, growing Sundays represents Epiphany, filling the time between Christmas and Lent. The rest fill the time after Pentecost and are called the Sundays after Pentecost.

She returns a few blocks to the track every time she describes the passing of these great, green, growing Sundays. This is the time when school is out and summer days get longer. We swim, we play outside, we go to camp. Then school starts again, we get new clothes, we meet new teachers. Then the days get shorter and before we know it, we are back around to the beginning, blue. It is Advent and we get ready to enter the mystery of Christmas. After the story presentation, instead of asking content questions with fixed answers, the storyteller wonders with the children. I wonder how the colors make you feel. I wonder which color is the most important.

Advent and Christmas

There are other stories that invite the children into wondering with the same engagement as the Circle of the Church Year. Some are sacred stories that tell the Old and New Testament stories of the people of God. Some are enrichment stories that focus on the lives of the some of the special people of God such as Abraham, Sarah, Ruth, Samuel, David, and Paul. There are the parables of Jesus. There are other liturgical stories that tell more about the three great times of the church year and the times of getting ready to enter their mysteries.

When the arrow on the gold felt timepiece moves to the blue season, the storyteller retrieves the Advent materials from their place on the shelf, again while the children watch. As the weeks of Advent progress, she unrolls a blue felt underlay left to right from the perspective of the children circled on the floor in front of her. On it she places blue wooden plaque-type cards that correspond to the week of Advent being celebrated (or purple underlay and cards depending on the church’s tradition), one card for the first week, two cards for the second week, and so on.

Each card displays the corresponding number of lighted candles and a simple scene representing a portion of the Christmas story: prophets pointing to Bethlehem where something incredible is going to happen; the road to Bethlehem that Mary, Joseph, and the donkey are traveling; shepherds with their sheep hurrying to see the child who will change everything; magi who, along with those of us who are waiting and hoping through this blue season, are also on their way to Bethlehem. On the fourth Sunday, in addition to the fourth blue card, a white one celebrates the awaited birth and anticipates the white Sundays of Christmas coming next. The storyteller lights Advent candles for each card, building toward the lighting of the white Christ candle, the Light from which our lights come.

Lent and Easter

When the arrow on the gold felt timepiece moves to the purple season, the storyteller retrieves the Lenten materials from their shelf. She pulls a purple felt underlay from its roll toward the circle of children like “new growth from a seed.” It is the color of kings, and something serious is about to happen. The storyteller invites the children into the Mystery of Easter. To tell the story
of Jesus’ life from his birth to his resurrection, she presents paintings mounted on wooden cards. One wooden card and one portion of the story are added each week as the purple underlay continues to reach toward the children.

Week after week as the children see a new painting, they hear the key events in Jesus’ journey toward the cross, until finally the women who went to the tomb found it empty and knew Jesus was somehow still with them as he is still with us today. The storyteller pulls the underlay one last time and the color changes to the white of celebration. She places the resurrection card. The great time of Easter is come.

Pentecost

The arrow on the timepiece moves to the red Sunday and the storyteller retrieves this week’s story materials housed in a red wooden box. She presents the story pieces on a red felt underlay and tells the children about how the flames of the Holy Spirit came upon the Christ-followers. The flames brought God so close to them and them so close to God that all the colors of their language and faith joined together in an unbroken circle. The followers knew with red-hot certainty to go into the world to tell about the mystery of Jesus’ presence among us still.

The Holy Family

In addition to an altar cloth matching the season’s color, there is another liturgical cloth of the same color. It lies on the focal shelf of a Godly Play classroom, beneath a wooden child-friendly nativity set displayed year round. When the arrow on the timepiece moves to a new color, the storyteller changes this cloth while the children watch. As she does, she tells the story of the holy family, the same story she told during the blue weeks of Advent and the white Sunday of Christmas.

Figures include Mary and Joseph, who walked to Bethlehem from Nazareth, and the donkey Mary sometimes rode because it’s hard to walk when you’re going to have a baby; a shepherd and three sheep representing all who saw the great light in the night; three magi holding gifts; the Christ child reaching to offer a hug, a manger, a cow surprised at what he saw in his feed box, and a risen Christ who reaches today to give the entire world a hug. This telling, every time the colors change, reinforces the colors’ meanings as well as the central place the holy family holds in the Circle of the Church Year.

There are many more Godly Play stories than are presented here. Additional stories can be created to explain specific celebrations within the life of a congregation or denomination. Wondering questions can guide the stories in directions appropriate for various ages.

Godly Play is different. It states as its goal: “to teach children the art of using religious language—parable, sacred story, silence, and liturgical action—to help them become more fully aware of the mystery of God’s presence and direction in their lives.” The Godly Play classroom is sacred space where children can enter into deep play with God’s Story. It is a place where silence is honored to allow for mystery and wonder. It is a type of church for children to learn about God and to praise God. It feels like playing, but it is really important work.

Instead of making up stories in their “play” (work time), children become part of God’s stories. Wooden people, felt places and a desert box filled with sand act as toys to help children learn in their own way about God and about our traditions as people of God. It’s worshipful, it’s wonder filled, it’s fun, week after week.

And when the year ends, with one movement of the arrow it begins again and blue celebrates the refreshing, coming-around-againness of God’s inexhaustible Story. Say the children who know Godly Play: “I like it better.”

I wonder which color you like the best.

Check out the Godly Play Foundation Youtube channel.

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