I am an Episcopalian, raising my son Nicholas (now eight years old) as an Episcopalian, but I was raised Unitarian myself, so I’ve had to figure out a lot of this Christian parenting stuff as we go along. I’ve talked with some other parents in the same boat, as well as some who don’t belong to a church but want their kids to understand who this Jesus guy was and what it all means–and one issue that comes up a lot is, How do you explain about Easter?
The rest of the story of Jesus is easier: He was born, and he was so, so special! He brought hope to the world and reminded us to love one another, and we give each other gifts to celebrate that. Jesus grew up and traveled around teaching the people to love and forgive. He helped sick people be well. He taught about generosity and trusting God.
But then the story gets scary and gruesome, and then this complicated thing happened which is often explained as, “God sat back and allowed his own son to be brutally slaughtered two thousand years ago because YOU are bad!!!” which might not seem to make a lot of sense but sure can make you feel guilty in a helpless sort of way, and then this even more complicated thing happened which easily comes across as, “He was only temporarily dead, so rejoice!! Never mind about those sins,” and somehow it all has to do with bunnies and jellybeans and tulips, and–well, it can be a bit confusing! I’m still learning to understand it a little better every year, and I am 39 years old. So how did I explain it to my kid?
I started a few weeks after he was born. One of the songs I often sang as I was rocking him was “Lord of the Dance” (full lyrics here) which is about the life of Jesus and includes these words:
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black,
Though it’s hard to dance with the Devil on your back.
They buried my body, and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance, and I still go on….
They cut me down, but I leaped up high,
For I am the life that will never, never die.
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me,
For I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
This gets across some of the ideas I think are most essential: People killed Jesus, but they couldn’t keep him down. He brought us something that is stronger than death, eternal and invincible, and he is always ready to share it with us when we are ready to share it with him.
Of course there’s lots of talk about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in church–and I brought my baby to church with me nearly every time I went–but I figured that most of the specifics weren’t getting through to him because they’re usually told in complicated language and with the assumption that the people listening already know the basics.
The point at which I realized Nicholas needed to start learning more about Jesus was when he accidentally received Communion at 2 years 9 months old–it was time to tell him about the Last Supper so he could understand what Communion means. From that point, he became very interested in our religion and Jesus. During Advent just before he turned 3, I made a point of telling “the story of Jesus” whenever he asked for a story, because he was quite keen on wanting to be baptized, and we wanted him to understand what it was all about. (He was baptized on Epiphany just after turning 3.) It became a favorite story that he asked to hear often, and by the time he was 5 I’d read him all 4 Gospels in their entirety, in the New International Version translation. All along, my approach has been to tell the story as it is in the Bible, in words he can understand, with extra explanation where necessary, and it’s worked pretty well.
The Episcopal Church has many special services during the week before Easter, commemorating events in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. On Palm Sunday, we have a Passion Play in which 4 readers read the story of the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion–and on that day there is no talk of resurrection yet, so that is the service I feel is most important for a child to understand so he won’t find it too frightening. Each Palm Sunday since Nicholas was 3, we’ve gone over the story on the way to church. It goes something like this:
Today we are remembering the Sunday when Jesus came into Jerusalem and the people were so happy to see him, they waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna to the son of David!” They called him that because his ancestor David was a great king, and they were hoping Jesus would take over from King Herod and would be a new and better king who would make everything all right. You see, the Jewish people were having a rough time. Another tribe, the Romans, had come marching in and taken over their country, and now the Romans were running everything and pushing the Jews around. Also, the Jewish temple was being run by high priests who thought they were really great and deserved to get a lot of money from the people so they could have a fancy life.
The high priests were worried about Jesus because he was telling the people that serving God and being kind to one another is more important than following all the rules that the high priests taught. The high priests were afraid that Jesus would lead the people to say, “You’re not in charge anymore!” and then they wouldn’t get to make the rules and have fancy stuff and feel very special and important. They talked to Judas, one of the friends traveling around with Jesus, and they said, “You’re a smart guy; you can see that Jesus is getting out of control, convincing all these people to quit their jobs and leave their families to follow him. We’ll put him in jail until things calm down. Just tell us when and where he’ll be away from the crowds, and we’ll give you a lot of money!” Judas told them, “We’re going to spend Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane.”
Thursday night, Jesus and his friends had a special dinner. That’s when Jesus told them, “My body will be broken like I’m breaking this bread. My blood will pour out like I’m pouring this wine. But my Spirit will always be with you. Whenever you eat bread and drink wine, remember me.” After dinner they went to the Garden of Gethsemane, a peaceful place where they could pray. Jesus prayed, “God, I can tell that things are about to get bad. I don’t want this to happen. But I know that you can see all things and know how it will turn out, so what you say has to happen is what has to happen, and I will do what you want.”
Then soldiers came to the Garden. They arrested Jesus and took him away to jail. In those long-ago times, there weren’t so many rules about how to treat a prisoner and make a fair decision about whether to punish him or set him free. In the jail, soldiers took away his clothes and teased him. They made a crown out of thorns that hurt his head, and they said, “Nyah nyah, King of the Jews!” They hit and kicked him and spit on him and said, “How come God isn’t coming to save you, huh?” Jesus did not fight with them. He just quietly waited for them to stop.
In the morning, the Roman leader Pilate talked to Jesus, and he thought Jesus was not so bad as a lot of criminals. There was a tradition that every year at this time, Pilate would set free one prisoner. He went out to the crowds that were gathered outside and said, “Who do you want me to let go, Jesus or this other guy Barabbas?” A lot of people loved Jesus and wanted him to be let go, but the high priests had been telling everybody Jesus was a bad guy and causing problems. The people didn’t know what to believe! The high priests were very powerful, and anybody who made them mad usually got killed. In the crowd, everybody was whispering, “The high priests want Barabbas to be set free and Jesus to be crucified.” The people were afraid. So when Pilate asked them who should be set free, they yelled, “Barabbas!” because that’s what the high priests wanted. When Pilate said, “What about Jesus?” they yelled, “Crucify him!” Some years in our Palm Sunday play, all the people in the church pretend to be the crowd, and we have to yell, “Crucify him!” That’s very hard to do, but it reminds us to think about what it was like to be a person in that crowd. You love Jesus and don’t want him to be killed, but if everybody around you was yelling, “Crucify him!”, would you have the courage to stand up and say, “No! This is wrong!”?
In that time and place, when the leaders decided somebody was a bad guy, they killed him. They did it in a very horrible way called crucifixion: They made him carry a big, heavy wooden cross up a hill, and then they made him lie down on the cross on the ground and nailed him to it, with nails right through his hands and feet! Then they stood up the cross and left it there in the hot sun, and his blood ran out until he died. This is what they did to Jesus. It hurt a lot! As Jesus hung there in the hot sun, bleeding, he felt so awful that he said, “God, have you forgotten all about me?! I’m so thirsty! Where is my mother?” Finally, he said, “God, please take good care of my soul.” Then he died. His body was empty. The people were so sad; Jesus was gone, and it was their fault, and everything was awful. They took down his body from the cross and put it in a tomb, a small cave, and they rolled a big rock in front of the door. Then it was time for the Sabbath, when Jews pray and can’t do any work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.
On Friday and Saturday, we’ll remember the sad, dark time when Jesus was dead and gone. But at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we’ll hear the stories of other sad times before Jesus came and how God helped the people out of those times. Then we’ll hear the rest of the story about Jesus:
On Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends came to visit his tomb. The rock was rolled away! They thought somebody had stolen his body! But when they went inside, there was an angel. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. He is not here. He has risen.”
Jesus had come back to life! He was able to spend some more time teaching his friends before he went to live in God’s house, and his Spirit is with us always, helping us remember to try to make good choices and, when we do wrong, to tell God we’re sorry and be forgiven. Jesus came back to show us that dying is not the end of everything, that when we live in Love we go on forever. Those high priests killed Jesus to show how powerful they were, but God is more powerful even than death.
On Sunday we’ll celebrate how Jesus came back to life and how the whole world comes back to life in the springtime, with flowers and eggs and new baby bunnies.
I do not pull any punches when I tell the story of Jesus. This is a scary story. In my opinion, the horror and darkness of the story are important for understanding just how bright is the hope of the resurrection.
But we’ve always been pretty careful about protecting our child from frightening and violent ideas and images–so how could I expect him to handle this tale in which friends and community helpers betrayed the most wonderful person who ever lived and killed him in this horribly gory way?!
Well, this is a lot different from letting him watch cartoon animals get splattered. There is a reason to be exposed to this story.
Still, I was worried about how Nicholas would take it. The first time I told it to him, as I described how Jesus suffered on the cross, he asked, “What did he say?” I told him how the suffering was so bad that he wanted his mother and he felt like God had forgotten him. I told him how Jesus died. My son’s little face trembled. He had tears in his eyes. And then he said very firmly, “Tell the rest of it.” He knew that was not the end! He was so thrilled with the happy ending that he went around telling people for weeks: “Susan! Did you know that Jesus died? But then some of his friends saw that the big rock was rolled away from the tomb, and inside was an angel! And the angel said, ‘He is not here. He has risen.’ It was the best news ever!!!”