When I was about six I heard the story of Jesus’ death for the first time. My family did not attend church at that time, so I did not hear the Gospel stories until I was in school. I loved the stories of Jesus, but when heard about the crucifixion I was devastated. In fact I remember going home and crying. Jesus was dead and I didn’t know about the resurrection. To this day I do not recall being told the Easter story. Logic dictates that my teacher must have told that story to us. Surely you wouldn’t stop at the crucifixion? Still it is my response to the story of Jesus’ death that sticks in my memory.
As a Christian Educator I have struggled to find the best way to explore Jesus’ death with children. This story is central to our faith and yet it is definitely not a suitable subject for younger ones. How can we retell this story for them without dwelling on the violence? How do we stay faithful to the scriptures and present the story in age appropriate ways? How do we even begin to explain its significance?
My suggested approach is to include the story of Jesus’ death as part of the bigger narrative of Holy Week. This allows us to emphasize those stories that are age appropriate, such as Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the last supper, and even Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Then as part of that story we simply explain that Jesus was led out of the city and killed on a cross. There is no need for further details; the fact that Jesus was killed is sufficient. Don’t stop at Jesus’ death though! We cannot assume that the children in our churches have heard the whole story, so give them a hint of what is to come. Let them know that it isn’t the end and something wonderful is about to happen. To quote Tony Campolo, “It was Friday and my Jesus was dead on the cross, but that’s because it was Friday. Sunday’s Coming!”
When we speak with the children about the crucifixion, I’m not sure it is necessary to explain why Jesus died. However, if a child asks the question it is important to emphasize that Jesus was killed by his enemies and not by God. I don’t want to get into a theological discussion here, but many churches explain Good Friday by stating that, “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” Perhaps youth and adults can struggle through the theological implications of this, but think about the ways in which that statement depicts God to concrete thinkers. Do we really want to present God as a harsh and rule bound judge? Do we want the children to think that their small mistakes are so heinous that they caused Jesus’ death? Perhaps a better approach is to explain that Jesus loved people more than the rules. The people who enforced the rules became angry and afraid, so they killed Jesus to try and stop him. Then move onto Easter and the assurance that, whatever we may face, we do not face it alone and that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love.
How do you talk about Jesus’ death with the children in your church? Do you have any special activities or wisdom to share?