On Palm Sunday, during the reading of the passion gospel, my three and a half year old learned that Jesus died. On the one hand, I was swelling with parental pride for his calm attentiveness and understanding of the story. But on the other hand, I was worried about how this new information would begin processing in his young mind.
Is he ready for the weight of crucifixion and death?
Can he handle the weight of Good Friday?
How do I explain it all to him at his young age?
For my son, death is not foreign concept, but also not something he has seen up close. Of all places, he learned about death in the church nursery. One of his church friends lost her mother to breast cancer a few months ago, and he has watched his friend wrestle with sadness and grief in the aftermath of her passing.
In his innocent three-year-old way, my son has actually provided some comic relief to a family in grief. “My daddy preached at your mommy’s funeral!” he exclaims loudly when he sees his friend. He speaks as if this factual connection were just a normal way to greet a friend entering a room. The greetings are filled with momentary social awkwardness, but they always end with a chuckle among the adults; fathers marveling at the raw honesty of a toddler who does not yet know social conventions around polite small talk or casual greetings.
The death of a young mom in our parish comprised his entire knowledge of death, until Sunday’s passion reading.
Now Jesus has died too. And my boy has questions. A WHOLE LOT of questions.
Some are simple and easy to answer:
How did he die?
On a cross.
Did it hurt?
When did he die?
Close to 2000 years ago. (He has no concept of “thousands” yet, but knows it is a “really big number”.)
Some take a delicate explanation:
Who killed him?
The government of the day, but spurred on by a lot of people who didn’t know who he was, yet.
Did they have a funeral?
Not exactly, but there were a lot of people who remembered him in a lot of different ways, just like we remember him right now in Holy Week and during the story we tell every week in Eucharist.
Did he have kids who were sad?
We are all his children, and we are all sad.
While my answers may be worthy of theological or parental debate in the comments section below, the point for my son is that the same Jesus who welcomed the little children in the story we read at bedtime, Jesus the “good shepherd” in a portrait on his bedroom wall, Jesus the tiny baby on the Holy Family icon in our dining room, has died. So we have been talking a lot about death this Holy Week.
Despite a world-class theological education, a career in ministry, and hundreds of conversations with young and old, alike about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I do not always feel comfortable explaining the events of Good Friday to my toddler.
The struggle is more than simply putting ideas in words he understands in a way that that will not lead to fear and bad dreams. The greatest struggle is staying in the weighty matters of death contained in his questions, without skipping right to resurrection. I think this is a normal temptation when it comes to children. We want to spare them grief, preserve their innocence, or even protect ourselves from discussing mortality lest it veer too close to matters of our own.
Yet, on a day like Good Friday, death is the story. It is all of it. And we should not skip to the happy ending. Moving to resurrection too quickly robs us of the richness found in Jesus’ submission, salvation, sacrifice, forgiveness, and grief. But when and how do we impart these concepts to the small disciples in our care?
This is why I am grateful for my son’s questions. He offers me the starting point he needs in forming his own faith. Relating the death of Jesus to the death of his friend’s mommy lets me begin the conversation on grief and loss from an experiential and empathetic place. How does your friend feel when she talks about her mom’s death? Do you think Jesus’ friends and family felt like that too?
Already grief and loss have taken shape in his young mind, and he is learning to relate his emotions to his faith. In other words, he is internalizing the weight of the day, and laying a foundation for Easter’s miraculous celebration when the tomb empties, by guiding me to teach him what he is ready to learn. It is as simple as answering his questions, and being ready to address them rather than appease or dismiss them.
I am equally grateful for our liturgical tradition, which allows me to progress slowly and thoughtfully, as the cycle brings us back to Good Friday year after year, and we will have the opportunity to build on the foundations being poured this Holy Week.
As you consider your own foundations in the faith this Good Friday, where is the death of Christ speaking to you? Where do you relate to the passion story? How does it affect your understanding of submission, salvation, sacrifice, or forgiveness, or grief?
I invite us all to dwell there today. Sit with it for a while. Resist turning too quickly to the next page of the story. Easter will come in due time. How are you building upon your understanding of God’s plan of salvation through crucifixion and death? How will you share with others, especially youngsters, this Good News of God’s plan of salvation accomplished through death and sacrifice on Good Friday?
[Image credit: Public Domain via Pixabay]