From a Child's Point of View
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23. The story of the flight into Egypt is the key text for children today. It offers in a story what the other texts explore in poetry and theological discourse. In presenting this story, however, remember that it may be unfamiliar. Few Christmas pageants or storybooks include these events. You will need to set them in context following the visit of the wise men.
Because many children know refugee children or have seen refugees on television, they are responsive to the plight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. While repulsed by Herod's murder of the children, they are aware that such terrible deeds are done. They also know a little about the hardships involved in escaping to and living in a foreign country.
When the story is read in light of the other texts for the day, especially the Epistle, it tells us that God is with us in the worst of situations. Indeed, God in Jesus has "lived through" many awful things, so we can trust God to understand our problems and sufferings.
Epistle: Hebrews 2:10-18. No translation makes this passage child-accessible. The New Jerusalem Bible does offer a useful phrase in "we are all of the same stock." With help, children recognize different kinds of farm stock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) and can appreciate Jesus as being of the same stock we are. In other words, Jesus is like us and understands what our lives are like.
The expiation and sacrifice ideas that undergird this passage and are the basis of much of Hebrews are beyond the understanding of children. Children will need to wait until they are mentally able to stand in the shoes of those for whom animal sacrifice was meaningful, before they can make sense of a loving God who requires that Jesus be just like us, in order to be killed in our place so that we may be forgiven.
Psalm: 148. Children read this psalm most readily as a response to God's Christmas love in the birth of Jesus and the happiness they have just experienced in the celebration of Christmas. Younger children especially enjoy the calls for specific animals, the weather, and other parts of creation to praise God. Older children realize that inanimate objects cannot praise God in the same way humans do, but they do not yet quite grasp the poetry of mountains or winds praising God. They are more comfortable with adding new calls for praise from different groups of people. The simple words and familiar vocabulary enable middle-elementary children to read it with the congregation.
Old Testament:Isaiah 63:7-9. This is the beginning of another poem that praises God's great deeds among the people of Israel. Its content is too general and requires too much background knowledge to make much sense to children. But if it is introduced as a message for people who have been conquered and carried off to a foreign land, children can catch a few of the hopeful phrases.
They especially appreciate the idea in verse 9 that God personally cares about us and is with us. God does not send substitutes or assistants. God comes in person.
Avoid such terms as slaughter of the innocents. Instead, speak concretely of Herod's order that all little boys under the age of two be killed.
Today's texts are filled with general theological terms that children and many adults will not understand. So cite examples, rather than use such generalities as steadfast love, mercy, graciousness, salvation, sanctification, or consecration.
Let the Children Sing
"What Child Is This?" and "Once in Royal David's City" are hymns that stress the lowliness of Jesus' birth in simple language older children can read easily.
"All Creatures of Our God and King" parallels the psalmist's calls to specific parts of creation for praise. The repeated Alleluias are easy for young readers. If "The Friendly Beasts" was sung before Christmas, link the care of the animals it describes with the animals' praise called for in this hymn.
"From All That Dwell Below the Skies," with its more general praise but the same tune and repeated Alleluias, is a good second choice.
The Liturgical Child
1. Invite the congregation to join you in reading Psalm 148, following the pattern below. (The words can be printed in the bulletin.) This could be an effective call to worship. Groups 1 and 2 may be either the choir and the congregation or two halves of the congregation. Before the reading, point out that Group 1 calls on everything above the earth to praise God; then Group 2 calls on everything upon the earth to praise God.
Group 1:verses 1b-4
Group 2:verses 7-12
2. To set the Gospel story in context, precede the reading by reviewing the events of the visit of the wise men and posing two questions: What did Herod think and do when the wise men did not return? What did Mary and Jesus do after Jesus was born? Challenge worshipers to find the answers to those questions as the text is read.
3. Pray for refugees. Pray for specific groups. Mention the difficulties of learning new languages, eating different food, learning new manners, getting along in new schools and jobs, and being homesick.
4. Include in prayers of confession and petition the week-after-Christmas concerns of children: being bored with no school and nothing to look forward to; broken toys; disappointments about gifts—not getting what we wanted or finding out that what we wanted is not as special as we thought it would be; weather that keeps children cooped up indoors.
5. To explore the great deeds of God that are referred to generally in the texts, create a litany in which the leader describes specific deeds of God, with the congregation responding, "God did that! Praise God!" to each one. Include such deeds as God creating the world, rescuing Hebrew slaves from Egypt, giving us ten good rules to live by, being born in a barn to live among us as Jesus, sending the Spirit to give power to the church, working through your church to . . . , and so on.
1. Tell stories about modern refugee families. Describe what happened in terms of God's presence with and care of the refugees. If your congregation has sponsored such families, and it would not be an unwelcome intrusion of their privacy, tell their story.
2. Many of the stories about Saint Francis of Assisi relate to the season and to today's theme. He gave up his comfortable life to serve the poor. He created the first creche, or live nativity, to bring the Christmas story alive to his illiterate congregation. He was so in touch with nature that he preached to a wolf and to birds. This awareness is reflected in his hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King."