It’s one of the two most important festivals of the Christian year - and it’s arguably more important and more central to the Christian faith than Christmas. But while parents and teachers are happy to organise nativity plays full of cute toddlers in tinsel, and even secular bookshops fill up with child-friendly versions of the Christmas story, when we get to Easter everyone starts to look a bit worried. What do we find so difficult about communicating the Easter story to children?
Well, for a start, you have to talk about death. That’s tricky, not just because it’s a sensitive and potentially upsetting topic for adults and children alike, but also because children’s understanding and experience of death varies widely. A children’s group at church may contain one child who has never lost so much as a goldfish, and another who has lost a sibling or a parent; and those children who have encountered death will have heard all sorts of different explanations and approaches from the adults in their lives.
Then, once you’ve got past the crucifixion part of the story, you’re faced with Easter, and the problem of how to set the all-too-familiar happy ending in the realm of truth rather than fairy tale, marvel rather than magic. For children who have encountered resurrection in every story from Snow White to Harry Potter, this is trickier than it may seem. Neither do we want to lay the emphasis on reality so thickly that it creates false hope or confusion in children who have known the death of someone special to them.
What solutions are there, then, for talking about Easter, both to our own children and to other people's’ children?
Firstly, let’s not be too afraid of our children’s reactions. Jesus said that we need to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. While that may require effort and imagination for us as adults, children have the awesome privilege of actually being children when they first encounter these truths. Let’s value their reactions and learn from them rather than avoiding anything as ‘too difficult’ or ‘too upsetting’. Of course I’m not saying that we should go out of our way to emphasise either the grief or the gore in our telling, but Good Friday is a sad story and there’s no reason to gloss over that without allowing sadness as one of the responses.
Children see the story from where we tell it, and when telling the Easter story, we have the choice of many different perspectives. If we don’t think that a child is ready for an eyewitness experience of the cross, we can tell the story at one remove - from the point of view of a disciple who ran away and only heard about it afterwards, for example. Or from the point of view of Barabbas, who doesn’t see how Jesus dies, only knows that his death has allowed Barabbas to go free.
The Easter story is made up of many different smaller stories: encountering the witnesses one by one can be a gentler way of telling it, as well as a way of emphasising its place as history rather than fairy tale: there isn’t just one version. With older children, why not make up a case file of witness accounts, piecing together the story like a detective who hears from Peter, Mary, a Roman soldier, Pontius Pilate and so on?
Finally, this is a story that invites response, so let’s give children the opportunity for a prayerful, thoughtful processing of the story. In our family, we leave out our Playmobil Easter garden with all the characters so that the events of Easter can be played through and talked about. Last year, I was entertained to find the risen Jesus playing with three children on a Playmobil skateboard. And why not? Somewhere along the line, my son had picked up the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that He can be our everyday friend - and that’s all I could have wished for him to learn.