Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. For 40 days, Christians have observed the season of Lent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. Holy Week recalls the story of Jesus’ last week on earth, his death and resurrection.
I teach Sunday School at my church, and every year I struggle with how to share the powerful stories of Holy Week and Easter with elementary age kids. This isn’t Christmas, with a baby in a manger and animals and shepherds and angels all nicely wrapped in a story full of light and hope and promise. Holy Week tells a disturbing story of betrayal, suffering, pain, and loss. How do you explain a crucifixion to a child? Yes, the Easter message is one of hope and resurrection, but even Jesus’ victory over death is a challenging concept for kids. To be honest, it’s a tough one for adults too.
Adding to the challenge is that kids rarely get to hear all the Holy Week stories, so the build-up to Easter is often disjointed and incomplete. Attendees at church today, Palm Sunday, will hear about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he is greeted with crowds waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” (rough translation “Hurray!”). Next Sunday on Easter, churches will be filled with flowers and light and brass musicians and crowds of worshipers proclaiming “Hallelujah!” (rough translation “Rejoice!”). What happened in between to make Easter so special?
Many churches, including mine, offer services during Holy Week which recall the events of Jesus’ final days, thereby telling the whole story. Jesus’ last supper with his friends and followers is remembered on Maundy Thursday, so-named because the English word Maundy is derived from a Latin word which means “commandment.” At Jesus’ last meal with his friends, he gave them a new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” At Westminster, our Maundy Thursday service is combined with a meal (a potluck, in our case); the worship and fellowship are intertwined, just as they were at the last supper. We share communion by eating a meal together and also sharing bread and juice, following Jesus’ instruction to “Do this, remembering me.”
On Good Friday, several Auburn churches gather for a Tenebrae service (this year at SS. Peter and John Episcopal Church), which tells the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and crucifixion through readings, music and the extinguishing of lights, ending with worshipers leaving the church in silence and darkness to await the resurrection.
Only by experiencing the passion of Jesus’ final days does the joy of the Easter message make sense. Easter celebrates Jesus’ victory over death and therefore ours too. Attending mid-week Holy Week services helps children hear the whole story with others, in the love and security of their families and faith communities. Carolyn Brown, who has written several books about children and worship, advocates for children attending Holy Week services, saying, “Not only do they hear the whole story, but they hear it with the whole congregation. They sense the strong feelings around the stories and learn that these stories are very, very important to all the people gathered there. So, they listen more intently and claim the stories as their own.” Being present on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, children can imagine themselves seated at the table or standing at the cross.
But is the story too hard for children? Jesus’ last days were filled with betrayal, loneliness, doubt, pain and violence. It’s not appropriate, in my opinion, to focus on the whipping, nails, crown of thorns or the details of a horrible death by crucifixion. But, the story of Jesus' suffering and death is not as unfamiliar to children as we may like to believe. Children know pain. Some know death. They know what it's like to feel lonely, to feel afraid, to feel bullied, to feel hurt. We need to tell the story in an age-appropriate way, describing how people were mean to Jesus and eventually hurt him, and how Jesus could have run away but he didn't because he loved people too much to abandon them. This story connects with children’s own pain and lets them know that they need not experience it alone. It’s a story that also tells them it does get better, that there is hope beyond pain, and that God doesn't abandon them in the dark but leads them to the light. That's a story every child longs for. And I suspect, every adult too.