Good News! He Is Alive! Alleluia!
The “good news” of Easter is somewhat different for children and for adults.
For most children victory over death is not very interesting. The lucky ones have little experience with death, beyond maybe the death of a pet. Those who have experienced the death of someone very near to them know that even on Easter the missed person is still gone. Though most have absorbed some of the culture’s fear of death, few worry about it very often.
Similarly, since for children all of life is new every day, Easter claims of new life are not exactly good news. Butterflies, lilies, and eggs that are often presented as new life symbols really make more sense as Easter surprise symbols. You don’t expect a butterfly to emerge from a dead-looking cocoon, a flower to grow from a clumpy old bulb, candy to come from an egg, or a dead body to come out a tomb alive again. But on Easter they do. For children, all are good news because they are surprises about what God can do rather than because they are signs of new life.
What IS “good news” to children on Easter is …
God is proven the most powerful being in the universe. On Friday the bad guys thought they had won. They had killed Jesus and sealed his dead body in a guarded tomb. On Easter, Jesus totally surprised them and blasted out of that tomb proving that God and God’s ways are the most powerful power in the universe. It is the ultimate good guys beat the guys story. Children, who know themselves to be not very powerful and long to be more powerful, relish being allied with the most powerful Easter God.
Children find good news in Jesus’ Easter promise to be with us always now and even after we die. Instead of seeing Jesus conquering death, they see Jesus proving that even after death, we are safe with God/Jesus. It is simply the way things are.
The third Easter message that is good news for children is Jesus forgiveness. This is most clear to children in the stories of Peter which are not prominent in the lectionary texts for today. So either add them or save the forgiveness theme for when those texts appear.
The vocabulary of Easter is big, hard to pronounce, but interesting sounding words. They are fun to define and pronounce together.
“Resurrection” means “Jesus is alive again!” or “Jesus is not dead anymore!” “He is risen!” can be confusing. It sounds like he got out of bed rather than came back from being dead. So it helps to talk about it before asking children to sing or shout it.
“Alleluia!” and “Hallelujah!” sound a lot alike and both mean “Hurray for God!” or “Look what God has done!”
If an Alleluia poster was buried for lent, bring it out with fanfare (even trumpet fanfare) before the Call to Worship. Yell the word a time or two with the whole congregation, use it in a responsive call to worship, then sing an opening hymn filled with Alleluias urging worshipers who can’t keep up with all the words to at least sing every Alleluia. (“The words in the verses of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” are more easily understood by children than those of the very similar “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”)
Challenge the children to count the alleluias in the worship service and to tell you as they leave the sanctuary. To convince them that their presence is important to you, have a pocketful of hard candies so you can give a candy to each child who has counted.
For many children the most impressive Easter worship service is a short sunrise service, outside if possible, featuring a telling of the story and singing of one or two familiar Easter hymns. Simply getting up before dawn to celebrate the story “when it really took place” gives it a reality the mid-morning sanctuary can never quite match.
No matter what time the Easter service, remember that many children will have missed the Passion story. The leaders will have to tell a little of that story to at least set the context for the Easter gospel reading. Another way to recall the Passion is to begin the service in a bare sanctuary. Briefly, retell the Passion ending with a moment of silence. Trumpets then interrupt the silence followed by a reading of the gospel and the singing of an Easter hymn. During the hymn Easter paraments are put in place and Easter flowers are carried in and set in place.
The Gospel: John 20:1-18 and/or Matthew 28:1-10
Mary Magdalene’s Easter experience as told by John is one of the best to explore with children. It is simple. Mary was totally sad and scared. Jesus had been her best friend and her teacher. Not only that he had healed her. After she met Jesus, her life was different – and lots better! But now Jesus had been killed and buried. Not only that it appeared that someone had stolen his body. She was sad and angry and hopeless. She was crying so hard she didn’t recognize the angels or even Jesus, at first. Then Jesus called her by name. Everything changed. Jesus was alive, he was still with her (even though she may not touch him), he called her by name. So Mary knew that everything would be OK.
|from Some Things Are Scary,|
by Florence Parry Heide,
illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Open discussion of this story by talking about how it feels when your best friend moves far away. Name the feelings you have as you think about the things you always did with that friend and might not be able to do anymore. Describe the difference in having a person with whom you can share secrets and suddenly not having that friend around. Then, point out that it was just like that on Easter morning for Mary Magdalene.
If there will be a children’s time, set it immediately after the reading of John’s gospel. Before the reading encourage all worshipers to listen carefully and encourage children to listen especially to what happens to Mary. After the reading, sitting with the children, name some of Mary’s feelings as she sat crying by the tomb. Together imagine and demonstrate how her face looked, how she held her shoulders, what she was doing with her hands (over her eyes?, clutched in fists?, wrapped tightly around her shoulders?....) Then, reread Jesus conversation with her in vss 15-18. Ask, “now how was she feeling?” (surprised!, happy!, amazed!, relieved!…) Imagine and demonstrate how her face, shoulders, and hands looked now.
Find an account of Mary’s story for younger children in my book Sharing the Easter Faith With Children, p. 102.
In both John’s and Matthew’s stories, all those present at the empty tomb are scared. Either someone has stolen Jesus’ body and the horror of Friday is going to continue or Jesus is alive again which changes everything and is scary. Matthew has both the angels and Jesus start out, “Fear not!” For children this simply means “don’t be afraid of anything. I am stronger than the worst evil there is. And, no matter what happens I will be with you always.” This is a message that will have to unpacked repeatedly. On Easter for children it begins with knowing that no one could kill Jesus forever and celebrating God’s unbeatable power.
The challenge in Peter’s sermon for the children is that it is all generalities, e.g. Jesus healed and did good. Help them by illustrating the generalities with pictures of specific stories children will recall, e.g. Jesus healing a blind man or Jesus reaching up to get Zacchaeus down from the tree. The pictures might be posters from the church school teaching picture file or projected images drawn from the internet. (I found this one by Googling “Zacchaeus images.”) Use the pictures to illustrate a sermon in which you walk through Peter’s sermon and to review Jesus’ whole story for those who haven’t been in church since Christmas.
Children will not understand this passage as it is read. But it contains two messages that make sense to them if presented in other words by worship leaders.
On Easter life changed for Peter, John, Mary and all the other followers of Jesus. Jesus was alive again and they could not go back to living the way they had before they met Jesus. The same is true for us. If Jesus is alive again, God’s gentle power is stronger than the power of all the evil powers in the world. The bullies don’t get the last word. We can trust God’s loving power. Knowing that we can live like Jesus.
Dying and rising with Christ is not an easy metaphor for children. Rather than dying and rising with Christ in baptism, they become God’s very own people. Because they belong to Jesus, they live by Jesus’ rules. If your baptismal rite includes phrases about renouncing evil, point them out and talk about how Mary and Peter and John were able to renounce evil when they learned on Easter morning that Jesus was alive again – and how we can renounce evil because of Easter.
Speaking of evil: Walter Brueggemann and other theologians gather all the evils of the world into the term “empire.” For children the term might be “bullies.” People, countries, corporations, any group of people who will do anything to get what they want are bullies. On Easter we realize that all the bullies who threaten and taunt and belittle and worry people are no match for the strong, loving power of God. It’s true that the bullies can do their damage. They killed Jesus on Friday. But, God and those who live in love win out in the end. Jesus is alive again on Easter. After Easter we are called to live like Jesus, not like bullies. And, we are called to live unafraid of bullies.
On Easter this Old Testament passage which requires that we know several Old Testament stories, is going to be lost on children (and many adults) – and that is probably OK. If it is read, its message for children is that God doesn’t just save people on Easter. God saves people in many ways all through history. We can count on that.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
“This is the day of the Lord! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” is the key line from this psalm for children. On Easter they claim it most when it is used in responsive calls to worship and Easter praise readings.
A word about Easter nurseries: Many parents who have not brought their infants and toddlers to the church nursery during the winter out of fear of catching the bugs other children bring, will decide to try it on Easter. If their experience is a good one, they will come back. If not, they may disappear, some for a very long time. So, it is important to be sure the Easter nursery is spotlessly clean, well staffed, and ready to receive the children. If it is also decorated with an Easter lily and a picture of Jesus, there is quiet Easter music playing in the background, and families are greeted with “Happy Easter,” parents assume that more is going on than warehousing children so their parents can worship. Find more directions and resources to use with preschool children who are not in the sanctuary for worship in Sharing the Easter Faith With Children.