Holy Week Is for Children

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.

Share:

7 comments

  1. I used to do Liturgy With Children each week; reading a simplified version of the readings and trying to explain them on a child’s level. (for example – children don’t necessarily understand what a debtor is, and it’s a good idea to give them a reminder as to who Moses is, or David should those names come up. )

    In any case – when I read over the Gospel for Palm Sunday, I decided that was one reading not suitable for young children. The account of betrayal , torture and death by torture is way too adult for little kids.

    1. In writing this, I was thinking not of a separate Liturgy With Children, but of children as participants in the assembly that gathers for the regular community worship services (see the last sentence).

      We need to be sensitive to the way in which children hear things, to be sure, but children DO experience betrayal and such in their lives already and need the support of the church to deal with them. By the church’s witness during Holy Week, we adults are offering them the church’s confidence that these terrible things are not the last word. The last word is the Word of life that was spoken on Easter, which conquers the betrayal of friends at school, the torture of bullies on the playground, and even death of loved ones.

  2. Yes, we have to be careful not to put rose-coloured glasses where they do not fit. The 7-year olds I taught for over thirty years were well aware of real-world violence. When I would ask “Who in our world needs God’s help today?”, their first answers were “the runaways” and the ‘drug addicts.” And some had family members running from torture in their native lands.

  3. As a parent of current 7 & 9-yr-olds, I think you’re spot on about kids’ experience of betrayal. I’m going to try to incorporate some of these ideas tonight at my Treble Choir practice, as I prepare the kids for Palm Sunday. Thank you!

  4. One of the best ways I’ve seen children respond to Holy Week was when they sprinkled rose petals over the epitaphion at a Greek Orthodox Good Friday liturgy. No special liturgies for children needed there. Even the youngest children there knew right away the importance of this simple, but very vivid portrayal of Christ’s burial.

  5. It’s really an example of Our Lord’s injunction to “be like children”; child-like but not childish. Holy Week is without pretensions, it is ‘basic’ in its human emotions and experience of God, others and self. The wisdom of the Church shines through the use of her signs, symbols. To ‘get’ what children get and adults many times miss, we need to lay aside prejudices and an attitude of ‘predictability’ and allow the liturgy of Holy Week to ‘surprise’ us with the example of self-giving love.

  6. A terrific reflection! I couldn’t agree more. Children need to be exposed to the richness of the Holy Week liturgies. I am not an advocate for “doing something special for the children,” or Children’s Liturgy of the Word (see my article on PrayTell September 3, 2010).
    In addition, adults need to keep in mind the understanding of what it means to be childlike is essential for the practice of worship. Through liturgy we enter a world of paradox, mystery, poetry, and symbol; perhaps in a unique way during Holy Week. Adults need to re-capture and re-claim the sensibility, playfulness, innocence, openness, directness, and vulnerability of the child. By its very nature, liturgy presupposes and celebrates a childlike faith and engages the imagination so that we can experience the presence of the Lord – here and now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *