Holy Week is made for children.
What the church does together in its liturgical assembly during Holy Week is almost by definition much more accessible to children than what the church does on, say, the umpteenth Sunday in ordinary time. What the church does during Holy Week, when one boils it down, is simple. In our words and our actions, our songs and our prayers, we tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And we tell the story in such a way that children easily find their place within it.
It’s a story of one acclaimed as a king by an adoring crowd, who then turn on him a few days later and send him to his death. Anyone remember junior high school, where today’s popular kid is tomorrow’s social pariah, and today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat?
It’s a story of betrayal, where a beloved follower sells out his leader. Anyone remember 4th grade, where dropping an old friend in order to get in with a “better” bunch of new friends happens all too often?
It’s a story of abandonment, where all the followers run away at the first sign of danger. Anyone remember a time when the class sits silently as the teacher punishes the wrong kid for something the class bully had done?
It’s story of personal failure, where people lie and hide themselves from others out of fear. Anyone remember telling a lie when asked “Did you do X?” in kindergarten?
It’s a story of teasing and torture, where the one in pain has even more abuse heaped upon him. Anyone remember the playgrounds, the whispers, the insults, and the taunting?
Yes, Holy Week is made for children, who grapple with defeat and failure and brokenness all the time.
From Sunday through Friday, we tell this story, this powerful and very human story, and kids understand it precisely because it is so very human. It’s easy for children to connect with Holy Week, because the people that populate the drama are people just like them. Oh, they may be older and have “Saint” in front of their names, and they may have had churches named for them and had their images crafted inside stained glass windows, but my kinship with Saint Peter of old was quite recognizable to me, a much less famous Peter, even while I was a wee kid.
Ultimately, the story of Holy Week is a story of love — of a parent’s love for the whole family. This is the parent who loves the kid who lashes out, who loves the kid who runs away, who loves the kid who tells lies and then is ashamed of doing so, who loves the kid who cries so much she can’t see straight, and who loves all the rest of the kids with all their other failings and problems. This is the parent who would do anything for the family — who would do, and who did do. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son… in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Yes, Holy Week is made for children, who long for this grand, sweeping, unconditional love.
On Saturday, at the Easter Vigil, the church holds its annual family reunion, and like a family reunion, we recount the old family stories. “Do you remember this one?” says the lector. Do you remember the story of creation, of slavery in Egypt, of exile and return? Do you remember these old songs our family has been singing for centuries? Do you remember the stories of hope in the face of hopelessness, and the stories of the promise of victory in the face of certain defeat? We go down to the river, the lake, the pool, the water, and tell of the grand things that happened there before and the grand things happening there once again. These are stories of the Christian family, stories of the unconditional love of that great ancestor.
At the Festival of the Resurrection, the family reunion celebration from Saturday night continues on Sunday morning. (Like a good family reunion, we also run into family members we don’t often see or hear from, except just once a year.) The songs of Easter, with their refrains and their repetition of “Alleluia!”, are tailor-made for children. The big people can sing the stanzas of the hymns, but the children jump in with joy and gusto when those Alleluias roll around. The worship space, too, gets a makeover. Most of the year, the space might look pretty ordinary, but for *this* celebration, we pull out special decorations and banners, telling even the youngest of kids (without words of explanation, mind you) that this is a special story and a special day. We get out special instruments for special music, and get everything in order for a grand occasion. “Christ is risen!” is our Easter greeting, and even the two year olds soon learn to shout back “He is risen indeed!” as they hear it over and over again. We gather to tell the grandest story of the greatest victory, where death is defeated, and we sing the songs of victory as well.
Holy Week is made for children, who long not for an explanation of God’s love but for an experience of that love.
Yes, Holy Week is made for children. No matter how old we might be.
Peter Rehwaldt is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with a Ph.D. in Worship, the Arts, and Proclamation from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley CA. He served for six years as the Director for Research of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, and currently resides in Lee’s Summit, MO. He has taught and spoken in various settings on preaching, liturgy, and the multigenerational nature of the church.