At the heart of the Christian faith is a story about death and resurrection, with elements of loss, sin, denial, and betrayal dragging us to the depths of sadness and remorse before our ears hear of redemption, restoration. It’s a hard story to tell; it’s a hard one to make sense of at any age. Paul knew what he was talking about when he called it a “stumbling block” dismissed by many as “foolishness.”
This incredible, wrenching story is at the heart of our faith, and thus we’re called to share it. But how do we share it with the children in our midst in a way that helps them to hear the Good News and grow in the love and knowledge of God? Kids can easily be taught to parrot back a profession of “Jesus died for our sins,” and can just as easily learn to fear a God who calls for the death of his beloved son. While it seems irresponsible to teach them that they are implicated in the death of “their friend Jesus” (as Carolyn C. Brown observes in Sharing the Easter Faith With Children), it’s equally troubling to teach them that “others” killed him after a motley crowd demanded his crucifixion.
During Holy Week Christians locate themselves within the passion narrative through worship. Some, for fear of their children’s reactions, may simply avoid the midweek services. It’s an understandable strategy, but it leads to young Christians who, having only heard of Palm and Easter Sunday joy, grow up without a sense of the richness of the Gospel story.
Enter the Family Good Friday service. Many school districts continue to give students the day off from school (ours is technically for Earth Day this year!), rendering a noontime service feasible while providing an opportunity to plan worship that does not compete with any evening observances. Worship can be kept well under an hour, and music can involve one or two easily learned hymns such as “Were You There?”
As always when planning worship with children and non-readers consider call-and-response prayers with a brief, repeating refrain. Keep Scripture lessons short or offer your own narrative paraphrase, as though telling an actual story. Consider incorporating rituals that engage a number of the senses (kids love footwashing and Communion).
The trickiest thing, of course, is telling the story itself. I try to select one metaphor that will speak to the kids’ experience while also shedding light on some aspect of the Holy Week drama. Growing up, the Good Friday family services I attended in my dad's congregation were populated by a veritable menagerie of animals -- mostly the pets of my frustrated-vet mother. We'd bring in frogs and snakes, gerbils and hedgehogs, and, of course, butterflies; beasts that shed their skin or hibernate or metamorphose, bodies that do not die at a critical moment, but which all are changed. There is a period of apparent death, but then there is new life. Pinecones, which are designed by our Creator to withstand forest fires and then release their seeds in newly cleared earth, provide another good example from nature.
In the two examples offered here, the metaphors used are less tangible. One year, I designed the service around a theme of lullabies, nightmares, and bright mornings -- emphasizing Jesus's comforting words to his disciples at the Last Supper, the nightmare of feeling abandoned in the garden and facing death alone, and the bright morning of Easter, knowing that all is restored. This year, our service uses the Tomie DePaola children's book Now One Foot, Now the Other, which tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather, Tom. Tom nurtures little Tommy, teaches him to walk. Then Tom suffers a stroke and Tommy is afraid and lost. Finally, over time, Tom begins to heal, and Tommy now helps his grandfather learn to walk once more.
I'll let you know if I can read it in worship without crying. It tends to reduce my husband and I to tears at bedtime with our daughter. But I'm taking the risk because the story conveys, in ways I am convinced children can understand and be moved by, that journey of the disciples through nurture at the hands of Christ, through despair and fear, to hope and love.
Carolyn Brown reiterates that when sharing this central story with children, we must never leave them at the cross or the tomb -- they must leave with the Good News of Easter ringing in their ears. But we must take them to the cross -- even if in imperfect metaphors -- so that they will know and learn that nothing under heaven can separate us from the power and love of God.