The events of Holy Week; Jesus’ last supper with his friends, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, are difficult for adults to wrap their heads around and, we imagine, even harder for children to grasp. In addition, our natural instinct is to shield our children from disturbing and violent events and images, making it even harder to approach the subject. But the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to our faith. So it is important to find ways to think and talk about it with our children.
Clearly, a large part of what will guide the conversation is the age of the child. A conversation about Jesus’ death will be very different with a three year old than with a 10 year old in terms of the level of detail used. However, with any age child it is important to always end with resurrection- never leave the conversation with Jesus dead on the cross or in the tomb. Theologically speaking, Jesus’ death only makes sense in light of his life and resurrection, so it is appropriate to talk about them together, but more simply, children do not have the ability to “wait” for the end of the story. They might be very distressed at the thought of this kind, gentle, loving man they have come to know through Bible stories dying, then having to wait days or more, to hear that it all works out well in the end.
I recommend telling the whole story of the last week of Jesus’ life as one story (just as we do at the Good Friday children’s service), rather than talking just about his death. As Sharon Harding writes, “ (telling the whole story) allows us to emphasize those parts 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…. 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!” Some children will find the simple explanation that Jesus was led away and killed on a cross to be sufficient. Some will ask more questions, like “why?” and, “who killed him?”. Gretchen Wolff Pritchard simply says that Jesus’ enemies killed him Sharon Harding explains that Jesus loved people more than rules, and that the people who made the rules became angry and afraid. And that is why they killed him. Whatever language you choose to use, I would not dwell on the violence, nor would I use “sin” language. The idea that Jesus died on the cross “for our sins” is theologically loaded, with many different understandings of what it means; it is too nuanced and complex a topic for children to take in.
Tom Suttle, on his Patheos blog, writes “Jesus took all of the pain, death, sin, brokenness (whatever you want to use to describe that – evil, bad stuff), and he sort of swallowed it. Even though it ended up killing him, he was raised from the dead. Now, if we live IN JESUS, we don’t have to live in pain, death, sin, brokenness, etc. We don’t fear those things because they are not powerful enough to steal us out of God hands. Even if we die they can’t steal us out of God’s hands.” This seems like a pretty good place to end up in any conversation about Jesus’ death. Yes, it happened. And, yes, it is not the final word. The final word is not held by fear, suffering, evil, and death, but by love, by God. That is good news that children, that we all, need to hear.
Finally, I am thankful that you are willing to take the time to think about having these conversations with your children. You really are the best Christian educator your child has. And being willing to struggle through some of these difficult conversations, being willing to acknowledge that as parents we do not have all the answers, is a good and holy thing. So have the conversation knowing that God who created each of us in love, is in the conversation with us, and that no matter how long Lent and Good Friday seem to last, Easter always happens.