“Spoiler Alert” is a necessary phrase in the age of the internet where we might come across a review of a movie or tv episode before viewing it. Those who reveal essential plot twists without proper warning are met with outrage on social media. The empty tomb of Easter needs no such warning. In fact children especially need the spoiler. As they hear the stories of Jesus’s last days on earth they need to know that Jesus’s death is not the end of God’s love and re-creation.
Parents may feel that they face a choice between sharing overly-graphic, developmentally inappropriate details about Jesus’s death, or sticking to Easter bunnies and candy. Recognizing the challenge Children’s Ministry is carefully and intentionally helping children experience God’s story in meaningful and life-giving ways. We offer three helpful tips for parents, grandparents, and teachers who seek to do the same:
- Always “spoil” the ending by incorporating the story of the cross into the larger story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. We use the Godly Play story, Faces of Easter with young children. It begins with Jesus’s birth, adding a new image of Jesus’s life each week of Lent. The final image is two-sided. One side is a very abstract depiction of death and on the other is the risen Christ holding the bread and cup. We talk about how these two things cannot be separated or pulled apart. Then we rearrange the images into a circle which reminds us that the story of Jesus does not end.
- Preview books and Bibles to avoid violent images and language. We recently crossed out this sentence in a children’s book: “The soldiers drove nails into Jesus’ hands and feet.” It is enough for young children to simply say, “Jesus died on the cross.” Older children can hear the text of the Bible which is often less graphic than children’s Bibles when it comes to the cross: “When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left.” Luke 23:33.
- Embrace the mystery and complexity of the story. One of the questions we ask children at the beginning of Lent is “How can happiness and sadness make joy?” During Lent we symbolically pack away the word “alleluia” until Easter when we joyfully shout it again representing how, in so many ways, life holds both happiness and sadness. Through it all we are able to experience joy in the promise of at-one-ment with God and one another. Wondering together is a way to explore the rich mystery of Easter without needing to have all the answers.
Bill Evertsberg had this to say about the hope of our faith in a sermon, “Atonement is the reason Jesus lived and died and rose again. What the Church is trying to say when it uses the word ‘atonement’ is that in Jesus Christ, God builds a bridge over the vast and otherwise unbridgeable chasm, which separates human beings from each other and from their creator.”
Unfortunately there is a shortage of theologically sound, child-friendly resources for sharing the essential story of the Christian faith. Instead of focusing on what Jesus does, “at-one-ment”, Children’s Bibles and storybooks often over explain how Jesus’s death works to achieve God’s purposes. One children’s Bible reads: “God was going to have to blame his son for everything that had gone wrong. It would crush Jesus.” That’s a heavy theological statement that might cause a child to wonder what kind of God wouldn’t come up with a better plan. For these reasons I urge parents and teachers to “spoil” these types of explanations of Jesus’ death.
During Lent we journey through the stories of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection seeking meaning. Each year offers a new challenge and new hope that earth will be as it is in heaven. In Jesus we find that God is mysteriously making it so. May we share the stories of our faith in ways that meet children where they are by laying the foundation for a lifetime of growth and discovery about God’s amazing love for us.