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Talking About the Crucifixion with Children

by on March 27, 2018

It’s Holy Week, which means the 40 day observance of Lent is culminating this Easter Sunday when we proclaim the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. But between now and then, there’s a lot we could talk about with our children.

Children of all ages love Easter: Springtime, longer and warmer days, things returning to life, bright colors, and the symbols of eggs and bunnies. The church has made use of these natural coincidences and non-Christian symbols to proclaim the resurrection of Christ.

But the rest of Holy Week is much harder to talk about. Palm Sunday isn’t too challenging: Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with people waving palm branches and singing God’s praise. He’s a different kind of king, a humble servant king rather than the privileged warrior kind (hence the donkey rather than a horse). The challenge comes Monday through Saturday.

Early in the week the hostility between Jesus and the religious leaders of Jerusalem increases. They argue about how to practice their religion and some of the finer points of their beliefs and whether it’s right to pay taxes to Rome.

Thursday night Jesus celebrates his “Last Supper” with the disciples. It is Passover, the celebration of God’s liberating ancient Israel from slavery to Egypt. The final of ten plagues was the death of the first-born in all of Egypt. Only those Israelites who sacrificed a lamb and spread its blood over their door were spared this agony. The catastrophe finally broke Pharaoh who let the Israelites go.

Jesus reinterpreted this ritual, casting himself as the Passover lamb whose sacrifice would provide salvation for the whole world, liberating all of creation from enslavement to the powers of sin and death. After this meal, while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, his friend Judas led a group of soldiers to arrest and deliver Jesus to the Roman authorities.

All of Thursday night and into Friday morning, before a hostile crowd, Jesus would be accused of treason against Rome and blasphemy within Judaism. The charges were not substantiated, nor his conviction justified, but the hatred of the crowd prevailed upon the governor Pontius Pilate to have Jesus flogged and crucified.

These are not easy matters to discuss even among adults, but much less with children. How can we talk about the love of God and the power of God in the face of such realities? It is confusing. If God loved Jesus, why did he let him suffer and die? If God can raise Jesus from the dead, couldn’t God find another way to save the world? Is God all-powerful or not?

The traditional answer is that Jesus died on the Cross to pay the penalty for sin—for the sins we all commit by not living according to the will of God. For the wrongs we do, for the love we don’t show, we fail to live as God desires, and punishment is the result. The ultimate result of sin is death and damnation. Instead of punishing us, according to this answer, God punishes Jesus. And having punished Jesus, God now looks with favor upon us.

This has been the official answer in the Western Church since the 11th century. It is so pervasive you might have read it just now and thought, “Well, yeah. What other answer could there be?” But it took so long for this answer to become official, and only in the West, because it fails to answer other questions.

If Jesus’ death paid the penalty for sin, why do we still experience the consequences of our sins, including death? Isn’t that a double payment? If God is love, how could he be trapped in such anger that the only way out is to punish Jesus? Why does it take the sacrifice of Jesus for God to forgive, when Jesus teaches us to forgive others without a sacrifice? Can’t God just forgive? Is God really the kind of parent who punishes a beloved child through torture and crucifixion? Am I so bad that this punishment is reasonable? And if this is the reason for the death of Jesus, then did God manipulate the religious and political authorities to do it? Because surely they didn’t know Jesus was the sacrifice for sin when they condemned him to die.

Our children may not ask all these questions, or in these exact words. But if you listen to their questions, you will find these questions behind them. And not just children; you yourself may have asked these questions.

When I talk to my own children, and adults who have these questions, I begin from God’s love rather than our sin. I assume God’s steadfast commitment to life over death and to justice over injustice. I remember that God’s power is revealed not in control, but in faithfully working out every situation towards the final end of redemption.

In the end, however long it takes to get there, God’s love, life, justice, and redemption of the world prevails. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the hinge in this story. Jesus taught God’s love, the nature of true life, and the ways of justice. The religious and political leaders of his time, those with the power of life and death, refused to follow Jesus’ teaching, and when efforts to silence him failed, they had him killed. This logic is much easier for children (and questioning adults) to follow. The bullies of his day, not God, killed Jesus for being good and kind. Children get this.

I tell my children that God was watching. God was pleased with what Jesus taught and how he lived. And God stayed with Jesus even through his torture and death—something even Jesus’ best friends couldn’t do. So God is unique in his faithfulness and love. And when Jesus was killed, after waiting enough time for everyone to know for sure he was dead, when it seemed like bad does prevail over good, God raised him from the dead.

So the torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus is still a demonstration of God’s victory over sin. It is a demonstration of God’s love for us despite sin. It is a demonstration of God’s commitment to righteousness in contrast to sin. It is a demonstration of God’s power to take the worst event sin can conjure—the execution of a just person—and redeem it.

When you want to talk to your children about the events of Holy Week, and not just the Sundays, I invite you to take this approach. Without saddling them with the guilt of the universe, this approach still invites children of all ages to gratefully receive the gift of God’s love offered in Jesus Christ, and to follow him with confidence of deliverance.

May you have a blessed Holy Week and Easter.

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