Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Stories of Holy Week – 5 (out of 100) things your child should know before Confirmation Class

The Holy Week and Easter fog is lifting from my eyes this early April, so what better time to reflect on how we teach the stories of Holy Week to our children and how we can build upon these lessons once they are teenagers in a Confirmation class.

In theory, these should be the easiest lessons to teach our children, especially if we are focusing on biblical literacy. Children’s resources are full of the stories of Jesus’ last days. If there is any industry-wide complaint I might have about children’s Bibles and picture books, it would be that they spend too little ink helping us to teach children about the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, not his death and resurrection.

These lessons should also be easy because most congregations (and if yours doesn’t, most likely there is another in your community that does) provide a series of worship services for Christians to experience the last week of Jesus’ life through ritual acts, scripture, song and prayer.

Of course these worship opportunities are only helpful if we actually take our children to them. It is a common pastoral pet peeve that children wave their Palms in jubilant praise on Palm Sunday and don’t walk back into the church until seven days later to exclamations of “Christ is Risen!” I forced my son to suffer (pun intended) through both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services this year, and I will share below in particular the difficult conversations about Jesus’ crucifixion that we had.

71. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)This is one of my favorite days of Holy Week because you get a souvenir to take home with you – like bat day at the ball park. When else are we actually handed an ancient prop to use in our worship experience (and to poke our brother in the eye with)? Palm Sunday or Jesus’ Triumphal Entry marks the start of Holy Week as Jesus comes to the capital to face his impending fate. In some Gospels this is the first time in his ministry that Jesus even enters the city.

Children can be captivated by the idea of a parade and are able to understand the humility of riding a donkey and that this entrance into Jerusalem is a way for those who followed him to acknowledge his Kingship.

Building upon this entrance into Jerusalem, Confirmation students can talk about how we use Old Testament prophecies to interpret the New Testament. What does it mean that Jesus rode on a donkey that had never before been ridden? What is the significance of his starting at the Mount of Olives? This also provides the opportunity to talk about Jesus’ trip to the temple after entering the city, when Jesus tosses out the merchants and money-changers. Interestingly, the story of the turning of the tables is one that most students can vividly describe – I would guess because it seems so out of character for who they think Jesus is. We can discuss whether it is more accurate to think of that incident as atypical or as part of Jesus’ ministry of challenging authority.

72. The Last Supper (Maundy Thursday)After a three-day break we meet up with Jesus and his disciples again in the Upper Room where they are gathered to share in the Passover meal. I know that some Christian communities find it helpful in Holy Week to actually partake in a Passover meal as a way to connect with that Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples. I am not quite sure how I feel about that since it seems to smack of “play-acting at being Jewish” , though I vividly remember doing it at my own church as a child. It is important that children understand that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, and talking about the origins of the Last Supper can be an opportunity to make that connection.

One of the most interesting things about including children in Maundy Thursday worship is that it gives them a very real context for the celebration of Communion. They can hear the story of the Last Supper and then participate themselves in a reenactment of it with the community. Especially in the congregation that I serve now, we “celebrate” Communion in a different way on that Thursday, and so it can broaden our children’s experiences of the sacrament.

In Confirmation we can focus even more on the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and what it means to be a servant for Christ. We can talk more about Judas and his decision to betray Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Heck, we can talk about what the Sanhedrin was. We can talk about Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and what it means that he asked God to allow him not to die. How does that conform with our understanding of the divinity of Christ?

73. Passion/Crucifixion (Good Friday) I admit that this might be the most difficult day/series of events to walk through with our children, and depending on what kind of Good Friday service your community offers, the age of a child should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to participate. By 3rd Grade he/she should be able to sit through and understand the significance of Good Friday.

I will also state that I am in no way an advocate of some of the voyeuristic sadism that can be trotted out at an over-the-top Good Friday service, as though Mel Gibson were planning our worship experiences. I believe that the Good Friday story is sad enough without the spectacle. The stories of betrayal and denial, of mob mentality and capital punishment, make perfectly clear the horrible things that happened that day.

It is okay to tell children that these are sad stories that we don’t like. The question that my own son kept asking me as they did a “readers’ theater” telling of Good Friday according to the Gospel of John was “Who are these people yelling to crucify him? Why do they want him to die?” All I could come up with was that people make bad choices, they often don’t understand what is happening around them, and that maybe they didn’t know what they were doing.

In Confirmation class we can look even more closely at this question… Why did Jesus have to die? Who were these people that called for his death? Were they the same people who waved their palm branches at him just a few days earlier? Why does Peter deny him? How are historical and not so historical anti-Semitic movements connected to Jesus’ death? Can we imagine as modern Christians ever hiding our Christian identity? We can even get into the wide variety of metaphors that might describe the act of atonement, whether it be payment of a debt, the lamb led to the slaughter, Jesus taking the punishment for our sins, or even Jesus taking on the sin of the world so that we would not suffer.

4. Resurrection (Easter)This one seems like a no-brainer (much like the nativity stories) since we celebrate children’s experiences of Easter with all of the stuff (chocolate and jelly beans) that comes with it. I won’t spend much time here trying to tease out the differences between the resurrected Christ and the Easter bunny, because in a lot of ways the trappings of Easter (celebrations of spring and new life) can have real connections to our understandings of Easter. Even the Easter egg is a longstanding symbol of the bursting open of the tomb.

What is especially important is that children come to realize that the disciples (both the men and the women) did not expect Jesus to be raised from the dead, and their reactions show their shock and awe. It is important for them to realize that in all four Gospels the very first witnesses to the resurrection were women.

Just like the Nativity stories, each Gospel tells its own version of the resurrection story, yet unlike the Nativity stories we don’t do as much to conflate all of the versions into one. Older children can come to understand that there are four different ways the Bible tells us about Jesus’ resurrection.

Confirmation class provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the meaning of resurrection, not just Jesus’ but the believer’s as well. It provides the moment to talk about how Jesus’ death is only made significant in his resurrection. For centuries before and after the death of Jesus, faithful Jewish and Christian martyrs have died for their beliefs. What happened with Jesus was different. The resurrection provides the theological belief that God’s love for us is stronger than even death. That the destructive and evil forces that we see witnessed on Good Friday are turned on their heads on Easter morning.

75. AscensionIf Good Friday is the trickiest moment to talk to children about, the ascension is the weirdest. Technically this story is not part of Holy Week as Jesus ascends to heaven several days after “Easter Sunday,” and the Easter season leading up to it should be full of the telling of appearances that Jesus made to his disciples in this interim period.

This is the element of Jesus’ last days that I connect with the least. My own personal faith works out just fine with Matthew, Mark and John’s versions endings of their Gospels with no account of Jesus being sucked up into the sky in the sight of his followers. But the Gospel of Luke (and the Acts of the Apostles) gives us this story, and so we are forced to deal with it – and teach it to our children.

In Confirmation we spend a lot of time talking about who Jesus is for us today. How are we connected to the historical figure that lived and died on this earth? How are we connected to a Jesus that after having risen from the dead now lives eternally with God in heaven? How do we experience the heavenly Jesus? What do modern people mean when they say they have a personal relationship with Jesus? How does one foster that kind of relationship?

All together these stories, just like the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs, should become our stories and the stories of our faith. As I think about including children and youth in this week of intensive worship and prayer I am reminded of the traditional spiritual “Where You There?” which my son sang for the first time on Good Friday. I think it speaks volumes to our call to be there with our children and teenagers through this week as we allow these pivotal stories to shape their Christian identity from an early age.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?


  1. >the ascension is the weirdest.

    Why is this particularly weird? Isn't it in the Apostles' Creed that gets recited every week?

    1. I believe that the way that Luke tells the story of the disciples witnessing the ascension is especially strange, not the theological concept of Jesus "ascending" into heaven. The idea that he raised up his hands and floated into the sky seems like it might be hard to understand from a modern cosmology.

      The honest struggle of the believer is not to only believe the things that make sense, but to wrestle with the weird. That doesn't mean that we have to deny its weirdness or deny its truth.

  2. So do you think that the ascension, as found in Luke, is actually hard for the pre-confirmation-class child to understand? Have you found that confirmation class students don't know how Jesus got to heaven?

    1. I actually don't think that it is hard for children to understand at all. I also don't think, in my experience, that we spend a lot of time teaching it.

      I have had Confirmation students who have never heard the story of the Ascension.

      The key, in my experience, is to create biblically literate children who can then bring that knowledge of scripture into a Confirmation class where they can learn different interpretive techiniques and how to ask questions of the biblical text- one of which is "Am I the only one who thinks this story is weird?"