As a priest and as a parent, I believe that Holy Week is the most important thing that we do as Christians. The services of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter lead us into the heart of the Christian faith, immersing us in the story of Jesus in a way that doesn’t happen at any other place or time. In many ways the special drama and interactive components of the Holy Week services make them perfect for children. The waving of palms, washing of feet, veneration of the cross, lighting of new fire, and participation in the Passion gospel give kids (and adults!) ample opportunities to engage their whole selves in worship, to encounter God in new and powerful ways.
And yet, there is no denying that the central story of Holy Week is a hard one. The story that we hear on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday includes betrayal, violence, suffering, and death. It can be difficult for our children to hear, just as it is difficult for us to hear. Here are some tips for preparing children for the Passion.
I know that the temptation might be to shy away from the story because it is difficult. But our children need to hear the heart of our faith. And, quite frankly, our children encounter difficult things all of the time. Our children are being raised in a world where they do active shooter drills in Pre-K, where they hear about wars and bombings and shootings on the news, no matter how much we try to shield them. Our kids experience death—of friends and loved ones, of pets and animals. Helping them to root all of those experiences in God in Christ is the very best way to help them find hope and redemption in the midst of an unsteady and confusing world.
A great way to help prepare your children for the Passion is to talk with them about it before worship. I often say something like, “Today we’re going to hear the story of when Jesus died on the cross. It is a sad story, but it’s also wonderful in an Easter kind of way. Jesus died on the cross, but somehow he is still with us.” Those lines are adapted from Godly Play, a Montessori style of storytelling that has an enormous respect for the faith lives of children. Without taking away the difficulty, this helps children to know that the story doesn’t end with the Passion, it continues into Easter.
I usually bring things for my children to write or draw during worship, and my church often provides great materials at the entrance as well. But on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I shy away from all of the frills and simply give my children blank pieces of paper and a pencil to use during the Passion. My instructions are simple: “Listen carefully and write or draw what you hear.” I have found this is much more engaging than any coloring book or activity page. I have been astounded by the things my children have drawn over the years while hearing the Passion.
Without being heavy handed, I always try to talk with my children after they’ve heard the Passion. Maybe it’s on the car ride home, maybe over a meal or at bedtime. I simply try to find time that same day to allow them to verbally process what they’ve heard. I ask questions that are drawn from Godly Play like, “I wonder what part of that story was the hardest part? I wonder what part of that story you liked best? I wonder what part of that story was most important? I wonder what part of that story we could leave out and still have all the story that we need?” In this conversation, I’m not trying to quiz my children on the content of the Passion. Instead, I’m seeking to hear what they heard (and often to hear the story in a new way through their ears!).
I won’t pretend that this is always easy. Getting to church multiple days a week with kids in tow can be exhausting. Sometimes our kids have amazing insights that deepen our faith; sometimes it’s all we can do to keep them from melting down in the pew. But whichever kind of Holy Week you have, you are teaching them the discipline of discipleship, and it will shape their lives and faith in ways we can’t even imagine.
Thank you, parents, for your faithfulness. I’ll be praying for you this Holy Week; I hope you’ll pray for me as well.