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Creating a kid-friendly Holy Week

Children need to hear the whole Easter story

By Becky D’Angelo-Veitch | Presbyterians Today

woman with childrenImagine the week before Easter, if you will, through the eyes of a 6-year-old. The sanctuary on Palm Sunday looks different, to say the least. Big green branches are being waved, shouts of “Hosanna!” are called out from the usually orderly people in the pews, and the pastor talks of a parade with a king entering the city, surrounded by adoring citizens.

Now fast-forward a week. The same 6-year-old enters the sanctuary (perhaps in slightly fancier clothes this time). The flower game has been upped — lilies adorn every surface, a trumpeter plays on the first hymn, and now the pastor talks about an empty tomb, a miracle, God triumphing over death. From excitement to more excitement in one short week! This church celebration of Easter sure seems to this wide-eyed child like a good time!

But what happened during the holiest of weeks leading up to Easter? Where were the children during Holy Week?

The service is too late. Holy Week falls over spring break again this year. We have dance class every Thursday evening, the same night as the Maundy Thursday service. The violence of the Good Friday story is too scary. I don’t think my kids are old enough to really understand it all.

For a variety of reasons, including busy schedules and worries about whether children can “handle it” — it being the events leading up to Jesus’ death and the death itself on the cross — children miss the meat of the Holy Week story, doing a great disservice to both the gospel and families.

These valid concerns often reflect the conundrum that parents and church leaders find themselves in when trying to figure out how to approach Easter and Holy Week with children. As a result, many churches have gotten creative in thinking more broadly about how to approach Holy Week. They have adapted and expanded offerings so that families can engage with this most important story in ways that are both developmentally appropriate and faithful to the story, even the uncomfortable parts.

At Beulah Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, families are invited to visit various rooms in the church that are transformed into vignettes of the Holy Week story. Here, Beulah member Lisa Costello and teen Ashley Davis prepare to tell the story of the Last Supper. Carolyn Leah

At Beulah Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, for example, Carolyn Leah, a certified Christian educator, has presented an intergenerational drama inviting groups to visit various rooms in the church that were transformed into vignettes of the Holy Week story — from Palm Sunday through the placement of Jesus’ body in the tomb.

“Participants arrived at each room/scene just after Jesus had been there,” Leah said. “Congregation members served as actors, telling of their experience with Jesus. These vignettes encouraged participants to consider a variety of perspectives — from the disciples to bystanders. At the end, an invitation was extended to return on Sunday morning, Easter, to hear the rest of the story.”

In Rochester, New York, the ROC SALT Center, a mission of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley, addressed families’ busy schedules by hosting a Stations of the Cross and labyrinth last year that was available every day during Holy Week. The self-directed and self-paced experience had the benefit of being open each evening during Holy Week and all day on Good Friday, making it accessible for families to fit into their schedules. It also created a meaningful faith experience for the entire family as all learning styles were engaged, with a range of activities at each of the stations, including watercolor painting, meditating on icons, and lifting and holding a 6-foot-tall cross.

In Rochester, N.Y., the ROC SALT Center, a mission of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley, hosted a Stations of the Cross and labyrinth last year. The self-directed exhibit was available every day during Holy Week. Courtesy of ROC SALT Center

In an era where everyone seems to be technologically connected at every moment, it should be no surprise that when asked to reflect on the experience, 12-year-old Sophie Veitch focused on the silence. “It was amazing,” she said. “I really liked it because all the stations gave you a different perspective on how you saw Jesus. It was a calming and quiet way of getting yourself into the spirit of Easter — thinking of it in a holy way, and not just about the eggs and where they’d be hidden and stuff.”

Holy Week worship

While special events can be a wonderful way to explore Holy Week themes, it is also important to make worship itself accessible to all ages. The Rev. Dr. Melissa DeRosia, pastor of Gates Presbyterian Church in suburban Rochester, New York, has used interactive prayer stations for the church’s monthly family-friendly FUS!ON services.

Over the years, Gates has explored a variety of Lenten and Easter themes in the services — even taking a step back by revisiting Holy Week in its entirety on the Sunday morning following Easter, a practical choice in areas where schools’ spring breaks and Holy Week coincide. The rhythm of the FUS!ON service follows a basic worship outline but provides a more experiential atmosphere by offering prayer stations as a response to the Word, says DeRosia. Following a brief sermon introduction, members walk around and spend 15 minutes exploring a few of the stations set up throughout the worship space.

So that families with younger children are given options in Holy Week, DeRosia believes that it is important to be flexible when planning services. In some contexts, that means bringing more of “the Passion,” that is, weaving more of the Holy Week accounts such as the Last Supper, washing feet and the Good Friday cross into Palm Sunday worship. In others, it might mean choosing either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday as a service more tailored to families, with the other service remaining traditional. DeRosia especially likes the idea of a meal on Maundy Thursday.

“In a prior congregation that I served, we have shared a potluck meal with teaching elements and moments reminiscent of a Seder but focused on the aspects that are meaningful to Christians like the water, especially in the form of hand- or foot-washing,” she said.

When there are a variety of options for these Christian high holy days, the goal should be to allow room for children to grow into a fuller understanding of the meaning behind the faith practices, so that even though a specific service might not be the right choice for a 6-year-old, with consistent opportunity to explore the narrative in different ways at his or her own level, that child might well develop an appreciation for the traditional services as that child’s spirituality grows and deepens.

“We hold a service of darkness and I have generally felt that younger children have a hard time,” said Leah. “But fourth-graders and above are definitely able to grasp the service. My suggestion is to have another area at church that is more of a child-friendly ‘spirituality center’ for those younger children. The lights can be dimmed a little with flameless candles where they can color, listen to a story on a CD with headphones, paint with darker colors, etc.”

Whether in worship, Sunday school or in the home, it is imperative to share this vital part of the Easter story with children. Christian educators agree that over their lifetimes, layers will be added to children’s understanding of the story, so that together with their families, they begin to comprehend the mystery and meaning in Jesus’ death, while seeking to more fully understand Christ’s life.

DeRosia is committed to always keeping the cross in front of her congregation.

“Talk about the cross without making it gruesome and bloody. Use the cross as a reminder of how God works through bad things and suffering. God’s presence is more powerful than even the worst violence in the world.”

This is the Holy Week message that the church is charged with passing on to children — even when it is hard, inconvenient or uncomfortable. Churches and families can be creative in the delivery of that message, and through that creativity will no doubt continue to speak the truth of the compelling story of Easter.

Becky D’Angelo-Veitch is the coordinator of children’s ministry and congregational life at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, where she lives with her husband, Robert, and her 12- and 15-year-old daughters.

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