There is so much that transpires throughout the Easter triduum, how do parents begin to explain it all to their children? Here are some ideas about how to help kids better understand the meaning of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.
Give the big picture
Before trying to explain the many details of the liturgies and symbols, take the time to talk about time. Kids know about the year with 12 months and three months of summer vacation, but do they know about the Church's calendar? The liturgical year is the life of Christ lived out by the Church in liturgical time. This year is based on the great mysteries, or central events, of Jesus' life, including his birth, his baptism, his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, his last supper, his crucifixion, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and Pentecost.
Explain that this yearly celebration of Jesus' life involves far more than simply remembering key events and noting important facts about Christ, but is a way of reliving those events and experiencing the love and grace of the risen Christ. This is possible because Jesus not only lived on earth 2,000 years ago but also lives today. And he is the one who created time, and he is the Lord of time, which means that he is able to help us participate in the grace and joy of those events. To paraphrase the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the liturgical year helps us to remember the past and helps us to realize its effect on my life today (No. 1171).
Prepare the way
Since Holy Week -- especially the Easter triduum -- are at the heart of the liturgical year, you may consider how to make the week different from other weeks.
Perhaps the family will not watch television for the week, but will read aloud passages from the Gospels that relate to the triduum and Easter. The Gospel reading on Monday (Jn 12:1-11) is the story of Jesus' raising Lazarus, Tuesday's reading (Jn 13:21-33, 36-38) is about Judas's plans to betray Christ, and Wednesday's reading (Mt 26:14-25) sets the stage for the Last Supper and the betrayal in the garden. Each of these provides important background material for what will be seen and heard during the triduum.
Finally, in many countries Catholics follow an old custom (going back to a Jewish tradition in preparation of Passover) of having Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week be spring-cleaning days. Cleaning the house from top to bottom is a concrete reminder that we need to clean our hearts and minds in preparation of the triduum and Easter.
For each of the three days of the Easter triduum, highlight a central event or belief and reinforce it with a family devotion or activity.
Holy Thursday: The focus can be the Last Supper and the Eucharist. That evening, before attending the Mass of the Lord's Supper, serve a simple meal with bread and soup. Explain that just as bread feeds our bodies, the Bread of Life -- Jesus Christ -- gives us his body -- the Eucharist -- to feed our souls. Read the epistle (1 Cor 11:23-26) and explain that your priest, who will celebrate Mass later that evening, is carrying on the work of Christ and why you are thankful for his ministry to your parish and family. Depending on the ages of your children, consider staying after the evening Mass for time in adoration of the Blessed Host.
Good Friday: Since this is one of the most solemn and important days of the liturgical year, consider taking the day (or at least part of the day) off work and school. Refrain from conversation between noon and 3 p.m., marking Christ's time on the cross, or perhaps observe the Stations of the Cross, either at home or at your parish. On this day of strict fasting, keep the dinner table completely bare; a common practice is to eat the day's single meal standing up and in silence.
Create Easter baskets for each child that includes not only candy, but gifts with spiritual significance, such as a bookmark with Scripture verses, or a small New Testament.
In the evening, before the Easter Vigil, gather for a reading from the Gospels about Jesus' suffering, crucifixion and resurrection. Explain some of what they will see and experience at the approaching liturgy (see Page 11). Tell your children why you are thankful for the great gift of salvation and ask them why they are thankful for Jesus' death on the cross.
Carl Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He writes from Oregon.