On the Cross of Christ and Leading Children Through Holy Week

We are rapidly approaching Holy Week, the most wonderful week of the Orthodox Christian Church year! It is a truly holy and deeply meaningful week. Experiencing the events of Holy Week is the best possible preparation for celebrating the deep joy of Pascha.

The reality of Christ’s death on the cross is a very real part of our journey on this particular week of the year. It is difficult enough for an adult to wrestle with the idea of God Himself enduring such pain and death. With children and their many questions added into the mix, Holy Week can be a real challenge for parents to face.

As we thought about Holy Week, the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education thought it would be helpful to offer ideas and suggestions for parents preparing to enter into the week with their children. We asked a variety of people to offer their wisdom and insights. This blog will offer a compilation of their answers.

Many thanks to Father Peter Pier (parish priest at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA), Annalisa Boyd (parent and author), Carol Federoff (homeschooling parent, blogger, and writer), Dr. Chrissi Hart (parent, child psychologist, podcaster, and author), Molly Sabourin (parent, blogger, podcaster, and photographer), and Rebekah Yergo (homeschooling parent and Sunday Church School Director) for taking the time to answer these questions for us! Their insights will help us to better prepare ourselves and our children for what we are about to experience. (And their roles are far more numerous than those listed here!)

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We will begin with the subject of death. Death is a significant part of Holy Week. It is unavoidable, and can be a very difficult topic for some people, especially children, to encounter. But Holy Week cannot happen without it! After we hear about what death, we will move through questions about why Christ had to die, what was significant about Him dying on a cross. We asked our contributors how they explained Christ’s death to their children and what ideas they have for others who are teaching children about Christ’s crucifixion. Finally, we asked them for ideas of how to prepare our children for Holy Week. Here are some of their responses to our questions:

AODCE: What ideas do you have for parents and teachers as they approach the difficult subject of death with their children?

Dr. Hart: “There are developmental considerations here – depending on the child’s age. Children under six do not have a sense of finality of death [and] so [they] do not fully understand death. Ask children what they think happens when we die. We believe that from death there is new everlasting life, with Christ. Death is not something to be feared.  Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, so we will [rise] also, to join Him in Heaven.”

Fr. Peter: “It is my opinion that parents should not hide death from children; it is part of our human existence. Children should be aware of it. However, parents should emphasize God’s love and care for us and the fact that a person who dies in Christ will be with God and therefore we don’t mourn them as people with no hope. If you shelter your children from death and try to pretend there’s no such thing out there, how will they make any sense of Holy Week and Pascha?”

Carol: “Use picture books that deal with death. I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm and Always and Forever by Alan Durant are wonderful examples.  Don’t wait until someone significant in their life passes…pick these books now during Lent and other times during the year so that this subject can be a gentle introduction rather than dealing with it after such a crisis in their life.  Of course, read Bible stories with your child.  There are situations and hints of death all through the Bible and can spark many mini conversations that will introduce the idea of death.”

AODCE: Why did Christ have to die?

Molly: He died “to destroy the power of death… He loved this world so much [that] he became us, to shatter death’s dominion over us.”

Fr. Peter: “In my opinion the best way to explain why Christ had to die is to emphasize that God knew that the only way to destroy power of death was for Him to go to the cross Himself and give His life for us. Christ went willingly because He knew that through His death he could destroy the power of sin and death over us. I would emphasize a number of things: First and foremost, God’s love. Put the love of God the Father and the Son at the forefront. Secondly, emphasize obedience: We as humans are constantly disobedient to God. Jesus, however, was able to obey even unto death (the thing that we fear most) and in so doing shows Himself to be the Perfect Human and an example to all of us.”

Carol: “I’m assuming these questions are for very young children and with them I would focus on the resurrection more than the death.  Christ died because he loved us and he died and rose to Heaven taking the people that were in Hades (a dark place that wasn’t fun to be in) to make it possible for us to go to Heaven when we die and leave the earth.  By Christ rising from the dead and going to Heaven, it gave us the chance to be like Him and do that too.”

AODCE: What is the significance of His death on a cross?

Annalisa: “In the Old Testament the Israelites disobeyed God (Numbers 21).  After they were delivered from slavery in Egypt they complained to Moses.  They were tired, hungry and angry at God.  God sent snakes into the camp of the Israelites and these snakes bit the people causing many to die.  The people realized they had sinned against God and repented.  God made a way for the people to be healed.  He told Moses to make a fiery snake, put it on a pole and lift it up for the people to see.  Anyone who looked at the snake on the pole would be healed.  This was a picture of Christ and the Cross.  Jesus was put on a cross so we could be healed from sin and death. The Israelites received healing for this life but through His work on the Cross Christ offers us eternal life!

“We cross ourselves all the time.  We cross ourselves at church, when we pray and any time we hear the words ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’  Sometimes we can forget why we cross ourselves and what it means when we do.  Each year during Great Lent we walk with Jesus through the most painful time of His life on earth.  His good friend betrayed Him and the rest of the Apostles ran away at the first sign of danger.  He was lied about, made fun of, beaten and finally hung on the Holy and Life Giving Cross.  When we cross ourselves we are reminding ourselves and telling others that we follow Jesus whether we are betrayed, lied about, made fun of beaten or even killed.  But it doesn’t stop there.  When we cross ourselves we remember that we take up our own cross and follow Him wherever He leads.  We no longer live for ourselves.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, before He was crucified, Jesus asked God the Father to take the burden of death from Him.  Then He said something very important, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.’ Luke 22:42.  That is what we are saying when we cross ourselves, “Lord, if there is another way please show me.  But I will do what You say no matter what.” In the Bible we read, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ Galatians 2:20 NKJV  When we cross ourselves we remember that the Cross of Christ is powerful and just as we followed Him in His passion if we love and obey God we will follow Him to life eternal.”

Molly: “Why the cross? Because crucifixion was seen as such a humiliating way to die, for common criminals. Everyone expected God’s kingdom to be an earthly one but Christ’s death on the cross communicated loud and clear our calling to live humbly on this earth and in hope of His heavenly, eternal Kingdom.”
Rebekah: “God created man with a physical body. You cannot be born without a body. It is part of the very essence of humankind. God, who made us this way, knows how important physical things are to us. Touching, seeing, tasting, hearing, and smelling things around us is how we understand the world we live in, and how we understand and connect to bigger and more complicated things- including spiritual things. God, who is spirit from before all worlds and bigger than the universe, sent Jesus to put on flesh; to become a man, in order to save us from the curse of sin and death. We learn of this mystery when we celebrate the Nativity. This was Love come to us. Man could now see God. Man could hear His words, straight from His own mouth. They saw His miracles and His compassion for all those around Him. And now, Christ Jesus showed us exactly what essence God is made of. God is Love. And in His loving-kindness, not only did he sacrifice His flesh on the cross, but in doing so, he left a physical reminder of this most loving act. It is a reminder to us that perfect Love not only died for us, but he raised himself from the dead and is seated on the right hand of the Father in heaven, awaiting that great day when He shall come again to call all of us to be joined with Him.

“From our prayers, we pray: ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee before His face. As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish; as wax melteth before the fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of them that love God and who sign themselves with the sign of the cross and say in gladness: Rejoice, most venerable and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified on thee, Who went down to hades and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His venerable Cross, for the driving away of every adversary.’

Carol: “For a young age group, I simply state that that is the way they killed bad people who were dangerous back in those days.  I try not to give too many details at this age (toddler through around 1st grade) as these kids, in my opinion, are not always ready for details and need more focus on the resurrection and that it’s very important for us. When they are getting older and actually ask for those details, I use the guidance of books!  We have many Orthodox picture books around and other sources.”

Dr. Hart: “The Cross is the symbol of our salvation, and of hope, love and redemption. The Holy wood of the Cross was predestined from the beginning of time, to be the instrument of Christ’s death and also of our salvation, as prophesied by the prophets of old. We worship and love the cross because Christ died on it to save us.” (An aside: read her book, The Legend of the Cross, for more on this!)

“Fr. Thomas Hopko in his CDs, The Word of the Cross, by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, described the Cross as the definitive act, word and manifestation of God: ‘Beyond the Cross, there is nothing more God can do. Beyond the Cross, there is nothing more God can say. Beyond the Cross, there is nothing more to be revealed.’”

AODCE: How would/did you explain His death to your children?

Carol: “I have explained the reason that He had to die and explained that the men who put Jesus on the cross did not know or understand that He was truly the Son of God.  It is sad that they did not know this but Jesus forgave them, so we need to forgive them and others who have wronged us.”

Annalisa: “When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden they brought both sin and death into the world.  Because of their sin, and our sin, we could not be permitted into heaven to be with God, just as Adam and Eve could no longer be permitted to be in the Garden.  The “bridge” between God and us had been broken by mankind and only God could fix it.  Jesus didn’t just die, He took the sins of the world upon himself making a way for us to be saved.  In the resurrection icon we see the Apostles, Jesus and two people being lifted out of the tomb. Those two people are Adam and Eve.  Christ’s death and resurrection fixed what had been broken in the Garden of Eden.  At Pascha we sing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” Christ conquered death by His death so we can be forgiven for our sins and death no longer means separation from God.”

Dr. Hart: “Christ died for us to give us eternal life. Because of the fall, sin came into the world through the first man, Adam. Christ opened the door to Paradise to those who believe in Him, love Him and accept Him as our Savior.”

Fr. Peter: (We spoke once again about how he we should emphasize the love that God offered to us all through the Cross. And then we took this helpful detour:) “Sometimes we think our answers have to explain everything, that we must leave [our children] asking no questions. However, there are things about our Faith that we don’t understand. For example: How does the Eucharist happen? Why does Christ continue to offer Himself that way? We don’t know and we can’t explain it. If our adult answer doesn’t satisfy our children, that is not a bad thing: far more important is accepting the Gift that is being given to us! We don’t always have to have a pat answer for everything; we can allow for the fact that God really is beyond our understanding. If children demand more, it’s not bad to humbly say, ‘That’s the best explanation that I have, but God is far bigger than we are and we really shouldn’t expect to understand everything.’”

AODCE: What suggestions do you have for parents and teachers as they teach their children about Christ’s crucifixion?

Fr. Peter: “Above all, emphasize the love of God for us and how much He cares for us. We have to emphasize that God’s love is perfect and He loves us with a love that is even beyond what we can understand; the Cross is part of that mystery of God’s love. Christ offers Himself to death, to destroy death and power of sin over us because of that Love.”

Carol: “Start with the story of Lazarus!  Alexander (age 4) was thrilled when we recently read the story of Lazarus! He told many people about the man that Jesus told to ‘Come Out’ when he was dead and he came out!  So the following week, when we got to the story of [Christ’s] death on the cross in the Children’s Bible Reader (American Bible Society – 2006 Greek Bible Society) I immediately reminded him of the story of Lazarus when I saw that he was showing some upset over what was happening to Jesus.  ‘Do you remember what happened to Lazarus?’ I asked, smiling. ‘Let’s keep reading!  The same kind of thing is going to happen to Jesus too!’  Then he got excited!”

Annalisa: “When we teach about the death and resurrection of Christ it is important to keep the information age appropriate.  We don’t have to go into as much detail for the little ones while still communicating how awful and painful it was.  We also want to remind them that He did it because He loves us.  For older children we can talk more about the prophecies in Isaiah and how brutal His passion was to help them understand how great the sacrifice was by Jesus for us.  He was not just hung on a cross, which in and of itself is excruciatingly painful, clumps of his beard were pulled out, he was beaten to the point he did not look human anymore and all this because He loved us.”

Dr. Hart: “Contemplate the meaning of the cross and salvation.  Ask children what the Cross means to them. Why do we wear our cross?  We wear it because we are Christians and to remind us of what Christ did for us.”

AODCE: As we approach Holy Week, how can parents best prepare their children for what they will see and hear?

Fr. Peter: “It’s appropriate to talk about the services in advance to tell children what we’re going to experience and what it’s about to prep them so they can look forward to services. For example, ‘Tonight we’re going to the service of Holy Thursday evening. It’s all about the crucifixion of Christ. We’re going to see the priest carrying the icon of Christ out and put it on the cross. This is to remind us of how Jesus was nailed to the cross and died for us. We’re going to read from the Gospels. We’re gonna hear that story again about how Jesus offered His life for us, for the world…’ I think it’s good to do some prep like that. It helps children to anticipate and to look forward to each part, and to remember, ‘Oh, this was what mommy was talking about!’”

Annalisa: “In our home Holy Week is a time of quiet.  Keep in mind we are a household of 10 so we are certainly not silent, but we work on turning down the energy level of our home.  We only watch Christian movies, if we watch anything at all.  We stay away from video games, internet and anything that isn’t specifically focused on Christ.  We listen to church music and eat very humble meals. We participate in as many services as possible especially from Wednesday forward.  We are trying to set a particular mood in our home with the prayer that in the calming of our home we can hear the call of Christ in our hearts.  Here are some of the resources we use in our home:

Parent’s Guide to Holy Week http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/departments/religioused/holyweekguide

The Jesus Film for Children http://www.amazon.com/Story-Jesus-Children-16-Language/dp/1894605411/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1426773611&sr=8-1&keywords=the+jesus+film+for+children

We have enjoyed the visual Bible over the years.  It helps to set the tone for Holy Week as we focus on the life of Jesus, His death and resurrection.  It is a dramatization of the life of Jesus but the only words used are the whole of the book of Matthew.”

The Book of Matthew Vol. 1 http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Bible-Matthew-Richard-Kiley/dp/B00S5OBQAG/ref=sr_1_3?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1426789986&sr=1-3&keywords=Book+of+Matthew

The Book of Matthew Vol. 2 http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Bible-Matthew-Richard-Kiley/dp/B00S5ORM2C/ref=sr_1_4?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1426789986&sr=1-4&keywords=Book+of+Matthew

Carol: “Take your child to as many services as they are able to handle but do keep in mind the length and maturity of your child.  We want church to be a good experience and overtaxing them at a young age can take away from that.  If they are going to a service, tell them about your favorite parts or favorite hymns, etc.  Find a copy of the service book and read over a few parts with your child ahead of time so they can try to listen for those parts.  Potamitis Publishing has a coloring book on Holy Week that may be helpful!  Archangel Books also offers a book titled Glorious Pascha written by Debra Sancer that tells about the days of Holy Week.”

Rebekah: “Making a list of the services available at your local parish will help you prepare for and manage your week. Each service will teach valuable lessons. This description of the daily services from the Greek archdiocese is helpful: http://lent.goarch.org/bulletins/documents/8.5x11_JourneyToPascha_1.0.pdf There are so many services though, that it is not always possible to attend all of them.  Whether you introduce the stories to your children beforehand, or review what they heard during the services, keep in mind that each story points to the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, come to redeem us from sin and death, and whom we look for to come again. There are so many witnesses to this fact, and the church has chosen wisely in showing us this. Holy Week is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming Christ. Often, on the practical side of bringing young children to evening services, it is helpful to know how long each service will last. Your local priest or choir director could best give you a time estimate.”

Dr. Hart: “Take your child to church. [Also] use Bible readings, read Orthodox children’s books, listen to the ‘Readings from Under the Grapevine’ podcast on Ancient Faith Radio and the ‘Let Us Attend’ podcast for Bible readings. Potamitis Publishing has excellent coloring books for young children.  Keep explanations simple and brief for younger children.”

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So, as we approach Holy Week, we will find that sorrow surrounds us, but resurrection pulls us forward. In the midst of this week there is great struggle, pain, and a myriad of questions from ourselves and from our children. But there is also hope. Smack in the middle of this horribly honest week where we face the reality of our own separation from God through our own choices, hope comes when we are met with Love Himself. He Who has loved us so much as to not spare His own Son; He Who loves us so much as to Himself take on our flesh and break the power that sin and death had over that flesh; He Who loves us so much as to breathe His Life back into our very core. This is the message of the Cross of Christ: Love.

May we all live this Holy Week cognizant of that Love. May we share it freely with our precious children. And together, let us approach the glorious resurrection of our Lord drenched in the love that He is pouring out on us along the way as we journey through this Holy Week.

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless one. We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Thy Holy Resurrection, for Thou art our God, and we know no other than Thee: we call on Thy name. Come, all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy Resurrection, for behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection, for by enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.

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One thought on “On the Cross of Christ and Leading Children Through Holy Week

  1. Pingback: Gleanings from a Book: “When My Baba Died” by Marjorie Kunch | Orthodox Christian Sunday Church School Teachers

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