Sharing the Good Friday Story with Children
Good Friday is often the very last day of the church year when we expect and plan for children in the sanctuary. The story we tell this day is so filled with violence, evil and death which we barely understand ourselves, that we hardly know how to share it with children. But, it is the heart story of the faith. Indeed, it is impossible to jump from the Palm Sunday parade skipping Good Friday and going straight to Easter joy without wondering what the big deal is. When our children walk through the crucifixion story with us, they make sense of the whole Holy Week saga and they are prepared to face the violence and evil that they will surely encounter in their own world.
At first children need to hear the Passion stories WITH the Easter stories. For preschoolers the first story goes something like, “There were people who were angry with Jesus. They were so angry they killed him. Jesus’ friends were so sad. They cried and cried. But God had a wonderful surprise. On Easter Jesus was alive again. His friends were very, very, surprised and happy!” They really follow the emotions rather than the facts of the story. Every year as the church walks through the story, children add more details. They slowly collect the list of people who contributed to Jesus pain and death. In their adolescence they begin to identify ways they betray and deny God’s love.
Especially on Good Friday, children gain more from hearing and pondering the story than from hearing theological explanations of its significance. Sacrifice, mercy, grace, salvation, atonement, etc. are abstract words that very quickly lose them. By exploring the details of the story, they will come to some of the same ideas theological vocabulary attempts to express.
+ Remember this when selecting hymns. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” with its simple, concrete story telling is probably the best Good Friday song for children. Be cautious of hymns that sing of the cross metaphorically, e.g. “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” Though caution is advised, it is also true that congregations sing songs about the cross with a depth of feeling that communicates to children that this is a very important song (even if they can’t understand what it means now). “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” is one such song in many congregations.
Sharing the Easter Faith With Children includes the following Good Friday resources:
+ Commentary on Holy Week stories from children’s point of view and a description of how children understand the Passion-Easter stories from infancy through age 12 (pp. 3-22)
+ Directions for sharing the Good Friday story with congregational responses (p. 88)
+ Directions for a family service focused on a Tenebrae featuring a prop for each story that is covered with a black napkin after the story is read. (It is a good choice for Good Friday afternoons when dousing candles makes little visual impact.) pp. 89-90
+ Directions for a “stations of the cross” type experience called “Journey To Jerusalem”. The congregation could travel the stations together or the stops could be set up as centers which families could move through at any time on Good Friday. If weather is not a problem, some or all of the stops can be outside. (pp 59-76)
+ Directions for children’s events that combine worship with cross crafts on Good Friday (pp.91-93)
+ Suggestions about how to encourage families who will not worship at the church on Good Friday to observe the day at home or on the road. (p. 93)
The biblical story is so long and complex that additional “children’s stories” are hardly needed. But the following books might prove useful;
+ The Tale of Three Trees, retold by Angela Elwell Hunt, describes the dreams of three trees. Each dream comes true in the life of Jesus, but not as the trees expected. One tree, of course, becomes the cross.
+ Peter’s First Easter, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., tells the stories of Holy Week from Peter’s point of view. It is too long to read entirely, but one or two specific stories could be read.
+ Finding the Fruits of Peace: Cain and Abel, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, explores the sin and evil between the two brothers. It could be used as a partner story to the crucifixion to explore how we act like the villains in both stories today. (Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch. But, it might have possibilities.)
+ If you have been featuring a heart each week of Lent, today feature a large red heart with a nail through it. It may be only one heart the size of a banner with one large spike through it. Or, it may be a smaller heart (the size of a poster board) into which a 6-7 inch nail can be inserted as each of the hurts below are identified. (To make this easier cut small slits through which the nails will be pushed.) The hurts may be identified in conversation during a children’s time. Or, they may be identified in a story telling sermon with nails added as the sermon progresses. Conclude each point with “ouch” or “that hurt!” For children, the hurts are identified somewhat as follows:
One of Jesus’ 12 closest friends led the people who wanted to kill Jesus straight to him. Judas even kissed Jesus to show his enemies who to go after. That hurt.
Jesus’ best friend Peter got so scared that he pretended he did not even know Jesus. That hurt.
Soldiers whipped Jesus and hammered nails through his hands and his feet to hang him on a wooden cross. He died there. All of that hurt terribly for hours and hours.
While he was dying on the cross his enemies spit on him and jeered at him. That hurt, too.
It was a day of terrible hurting. But even all those hurts could not kill Jesus’ love. Jesus still loved all those people and forgave them for all the horrible ways they hurt him. He forgave Peter and the soldiers and all the people who teased him while he was dying. That is why we call this GOOD Friday. Because Jesus loved all those people so much that he forgave them, we know that Jesus loves us and will forgive us, too.
+ If you did not use the broken heart patched with a band-aid on Palm/Passion Sunday, use it today to describe Jesus who kept loving even when his heart and body were broken. List all the ways his heart was broken using the list above. Then insist that Good Friday is about God’s love that never gives up on us or anyone.
+ Warning: Giving each worshiper a large nail to hold as the stories are read is powerful for youth and adults. Many children, however, will use them to poke themselves and children sitting near them, possibly scratch wooden furniture (just to see what happens), and find other ways to turn them into toys rather than meditation props. Nail crosses are less dangerous, but are often too expensive to give to all worshipers.
+ If you feature nail/s through a red heart, you might recall what Simeon said to Mary when he blessed Jesus at eight days old in the Temple. He said, “and a sword will pierce your own soul (or heart) too.” (Luke 2: 34-35). Briefly imagine how hard it must have been for Mary to watch Jesus die on the cross. Note that loving can hurt when watch people we love suffer and when the people we love hurt us. We are to keep loving just as Mary kept loving on that Friday.
+ Challenge children to draw pictures of the stories that are read using only black and gray crayons maybe drawn on gray paper. Or, provide coloring sheets for children in the pews or one large coloring poster for children to work on together in an artists’ corner of the sanctuary. (Go to Illustrated Children's Ministry for coloring posters to order.) Drawing or coloring with their hands offers some children a chance to experience the somberness of the service without being overwhelmed by it.
+ Good Friday this year falls on March 25 – 3 months to the day after Christmas. At the beginning of worship, maybe before the Call to Worship, point this out to children and display a baby in the manger and a wooded cross or pictures of both. Note how happy people were when the baby was born and how angry and mean they had become to Jesus the man. Insist that this is the same Jesus and invite them to listen to the saddest of all story about him today – and then to come back for the happiest story on Sunday. (This helps children connect Jesus the baby with Jesus the man which is sometimes hard for them to do.)
John 18:1- 19:42
+ This is of course the key story of the day. But it is verrrrry long. For children, break it up interspersing pieces of the story with songs and prayers. In a more traditional seated service, help children follow the order of worship by printing a small clip art picture related to the story next to each reading.
+ In John’s gospel Jesus is almost in charge of everything that happens. Children who depend on adults to be in charge of the world around them especially appreciate this view of Jesus. They like that he just took the violence, that he forgave the thief and the crowd, and that he took care of his mother. This is the same Jesus they know and love in all the other gospel stories.
Isaiah 52: 13-53:12
If they are told that many people think this description of a suffering servant is a lot like Jesus on Good Friday, older children may listen for words and phrases that connect to the Passion stories. But this is mainly for the adults.
+ Introduce this simply as a prayer Jesus might have prayed on the cross. Encourage listeners to listen for words that tell how Jesus might have felt on the cross and for words that might have given him comfort and hope on the cross.
+ Before reading the entire psalm, give older children a page listing some of the phrases Jesus prayed on the cross. Tell them that this prayer is long and urge them to listen and watch for the short prayers in it.
t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
Listen for Jesus praying on the cross in Psalm 22
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me?
All who see me mock at me.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
They stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among themselves.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
+ The psalm begins “my God why have you forsaken me (“left me on my own when I needed you” to children)” and ends with a statement of great faith in God. Point out that it is good prayer to remember when we feel abandoned and hopeless and stuck. Jesus felt that way on the cross, but still trusted God.
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
+ The image of Jesus as high priest is foreign to today’s children, especially the non-Episcopalian Protestant children. Before they can make sense of the metaphor, they must understand the Old Testament sacrificial theology. Even when they are given the facts children are confused. They ask unanswerable questions like, “Why do we have to forgive for free, but God has to have a sacrifice?” “Why would killing an animal make God happy?” Jesus may come out looking OK, but God looks rather scary. So, this is one image of Jesus that needs to wait until they are older.
AN IMPORTANT GOOD FRIDAY REMINDER
Adult worshipers know that the crucifixion is not the final word. Children, especially those who may be hearing the details for the first time or may have not heard the story for a year, may not. These children are often upset by the thought that “they killed Jesus.” So, clearly point out to them that things looked really sad and hopeless on Friday, but God had a wonderful surprise waiting for Easter. Encourage them to come back on Sunday to hear about that surprise. Even whisper an “alleluia” together or write “alleluia” in small letters in the palm of young hands at the end of the service to remind yourselves that something wonderful is coming.