Each of these books takes us through a season or two of the church year, with vibrant and colorful scenes from scripture, nature, and a child’s daily life. Mystery, wonder, and celebrations large and small are woven throughout. The connections between church and home, scripture and our own stories are beautifully made, and you’ll find simple, meaningful ideas and practices to try.
In the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year, we are reminded
It is all here. Everything we need. For every beginning there is an ending, and for every ending there is a beginning. It goes on and on. Forever and ever.
Wherever we find ourselves in the circle, we have companions on the way who help us follow Jesus. Laura Alary and her guides are wonderful companions.
Laura has many other books you’ll want to add to your library. Learn more about her and them here.
The Great Vigil of Easter was made for pillow forts. No, really. I am utterly convinced that this, the holiest night of the year, the jewel of our liturgical celebrations, is perfect for home, in pajamas, under two chairs covered by a blanket. We begin in darkness.
It would be wonderful if someone kindled an impressive new fire outside. If you are participating as a church, show this on camera and please light the Paschal Candle from it. If you are doing this as a household and have a fire pit or fireplace, by all means, make a blaze safely. A fat candle in a glass jar will also be lovely. This is the prayer:
Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
Let us pray.
O God, through your Son you have bestowed upon your people the brightness of your light: Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Next comes the Exsultet, the ancient Easter proclamation dating from the 4th century. It is usually chanted. You could listen to this beautiful rendition, which includes praise to the bees from whose wax the Paschal candle was made, or read the first three verses aloud:
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout Salvation for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people.
Now it’s time for the stories, the record of God’s saving deeds through history. Tell them as if you are around a campfire in the desert. Hold a flashlight under your chin.
You don’t need to use all the stories. Actually, please don’t use them all. I recommend Creation, Exodus, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, and Zephaniah 3:14-20. If you are doing this over Zoom, let households choose the story the want to tell. Perhaps they’ll use poetry, music, drama, a picture book, various translations, a children’s Bible. Invite people illustrate the stories in advance (or maybe create a scene using LEGO bricks and snap a photo?) so you can share them with everyone.
If you are doing this with just your own family, I suggest James Weldon Johnson’s poem Creation, found here, or Phyllis Root’s charming picture book, Big Momma Makes the World. Exodus 14:10-31 is always read; I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message. At the line, “The Egyptians came after them in full pursuit” invite the listeners to slap their thighs, making a thundering soundof the Egyptians in pursuit, which should end abruptly at the line, “the sea returned to its place as before.”
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones is next. I have found children love to be the bones. Remind them that bones lie very still! At the rattling (a maraca?), they roll on the floor. At the sound of God’s breath, they stand, and maybe dance? I suggest that the final reading before the Gospel be this, from the prophet Zephaniah, describing what it will be like when the Messiah comes.
It’s almost time. Have bells for ringing and pots and pans for banging at the ready, and someone will want to fling on all the lights. You’re all going to shout the Easter acclamation, three times:
Alleluia! Alleluia! We sing this night, joining heaven and earth that rejoice with delight. Jesus, our Lord, is risen today. God’s love and light is here to stay. Joining heaven and earth that rejoice with delight, Alleluia! Alleluia! We sing this night. Amen.
Palm Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, when we tell in story and song and pageantry of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before he died and rose again. All four gospels recount that he came into the city not astride a great white stallion as would befit a king, but on a humble donkey, and thousands hailed him, laying down their cloaks and palm branches on the path before him, singing “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
One Lent my friend Hershey and I thought it would be fun if we could find a donkey to lead the Palm Sunday procession for five blocks along Broadway in lower Manhattan, from St. Paul’s Chapel to Trinity Church. Can’t you just see the stunned tourists and charmed children? We never actually thought our boss would agree, but he did, and each year thereafter, it was my job to wrangle the donkey. Just finding one was a challenge, for as Rob in Yonkers once pointed out to me, “Palm Sunday is like New Year’s Eve for donkeys.” So that’s something you don’t need to worry about at home.
You also don’t need to worry about palms. As my friend Bruce Jenneker explains in this short video, “All over the world people have chosen to use the branches that are common to them.” You could decorate your door with palms or any leafy branch, because one of the most touching things about Palm Sunday is the element of public witness, of welcoming the King of Kings. Illustrated Ministry even has a free downloadable palm branch to print and color, as in the photo above from a family participating in online worship at my church in 2020. Wherever we are, we enter into the story, we connect to it, to Jesus, to our communities of faith, to one another.
We could take time, and not even a long time, with the scriptures each day during Holy Week, using a technique from Ignatian spirituality called Imaginative Prayer. What I love about this is that it works well with people of all ages, and could be done at home or with others on Zoom. It’s best when one person reads the Gospel aloud. I suggest using the Common English Bible. The readings for all of Holy Week can be found here. As you listen, put yourself in the story, or imagine that you are one of the people in the story. Think about where you are, how you feel. Read the story again. Name, or draw, or write down what you smell, taste, touch, see, and hear, giving at least one detail in each category. Remember that in scripture, we find ourselves–at the gates of Jerusalem, in the Temple courts, having supper in the Upper Room, falling asleep in the garden, hearing the cock crow three times, trembling at the foot of the cross, wondering at the empty tomb.
In my previous life directing formation programs for children, youth and families at Episcopal churches, this has long been my busiest time of year, with countless hours spent preparing for the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter and all the special activities that go along with them. Having left parish ministry at the beginning of March 2020, I did not anticipate how different Holy Week and Easter would be, for all of us.
To that end, I’ve written a series of posts for households with or without children, that are simple ideas for observing Holy Week at home. In spite of everything, and just when we need it most, the stone will be rolled away from the tomb, Easter will come, and it is possible, perhaps even likely, that this year we will feel the mystery of the resurrection even more powerfully.
Palm Sunday with palms or without, and imaginative prayer
Maundy Thursday, with a simple foot-washing service and some thoughts about bread
Good Friday, with good theology and a recipe for hot cross buns
It has been a very long Lent. Today, the stone has been rolled away from the tomb. Wake your household up in the morning with the ages-old acclamation, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” They will soon learn the response: “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” Your earliest riser could do this for the family, given a bell to ring through the house. Before breakfast, light a candle and read from the Gospel according to John:
Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
John 20:1-18, Common English Bible
This is a quirky story we tell, the resurrection of our Lord. Resurrection means, “to cause to stand up.” Easter is an even greater mystery than Christmas. My understanding of the hows and whys is imperfect. What I do believe is that our God is a God of love, grace and mercy.
Easter isn’t a day, it’s a season, a full fifty days. How will you celebrate? You could raise butterflies, even in an apartment. My most personal experience of resurrection was the year we brought home a caterpillar from the children’s museum, when Peter was four. Our tiny friend ate food from a tub they provided, and we painted the inside of a shoebox to look garden-like. A stick wedged at an angle provided a place for the chrysalis to hang from, and sure enough, one day our friend began to change. Covered with clear cellophane, the shoebox sat on the baker’s rack in our kitchen. For weeks, nothing happened. I was sure we had a dud. I even stopped bringing Peter’s attention to it, but I hadn’t the heart to throw it out. And then one day, we came home to to what we thought might be a small earthquake. (We lived in Southern California; it wasn’t unlikely.) Peter quickly realized it was just the baker’s rack that was shaking. The chrysalis had finally burst and our butterfly was beating its wings against the cellophane! We ran outside and released it. You can well imagine our surprise and joy! It was Easter all over again.
If you are able, start a butterfly garden, growing what butterflies need to flourish. Today, though, make some butterflies to decorate your windows, so that everyone who walks by will see signs of new life.
We are Easter people, and it’s our work and our privilege to point out and create signs of new life. Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed.
Through Jesus, God’s love claimed victory over death, and opened for us the gate of new life forever. Lead us, risen Christ, into the mystery of Easter and fill us with your Holy Spirit so we can join you in building your kingdom of justice and love.
Holy Saturday is a time of waiting. Good Friday has come and gone, and Easter has not yet arrived. There is quiet, and sadness, and a sense of strangeness that suits the present moment. Today, Jesus is between earth and heaven. You can almost hear the earth breathe.
It would be good to go for a walk early. Find some stones to put in your pocket. You’ll need them later. Look for signs of spring. You will find them. Aslan is on the move.
In our Brooklyn neighborhood we can walk to Prospect Park and still keep the required distance from others, but that’s another reason to go early. We can walk to the corner near the hospital, too, and pray for all those within.
When you arrive home, fish the stones from your pocket, wash them, dry them, and stack them, one on another, with a prayer for each stone. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob ran away in fear and spent the night in the desert. He took a stone and put it under his head for a pillow, and dreamed of angels moving up and down a ladder. When he woke, he said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He anointed the stone with oil and left it there as a reminder.
God was in that place.
The women who stood at the foot of the cross on Friday waited at home on Saturday, the Sabbath, in quiet and sadness and strangeness. Did they know God was in that place?
In Celtic spirituality, there is a term for places where heaven and earth touch, where the veil between them is so thin it becomes translucent. Minister and poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description:
‘Thin places’, the Celts call this space, Both seen and unseen, Where the door between the world And the next is cracked open for a moment And the light is not all on the other side. God shaped space. Holy.”
On this day, Thursday in Holy Week, we remember the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples, which may or may not have been a Passover meal. Only John’s gospel, however, tells how, after dinner, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, guys who wore sandals on unpaved dirt roads all the time, whose feet must have been filthy. This was a servant’s work, and Jesus gave his friends a new commandment (“mandatum” in Latin):
Love one another as I have loved you.
For this reason we churchy people do a strange thing: we wash one another’s feet. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, and I know lots of people who get pedicures first. It’s humbling and touching, too.
If you want to include those living alone or who might otherwise have difficulty with the physical aspect of washing feet, you could do this on Zoom and ask them to be the readers. Singing on Zoom works best when all but one person who will serve as the song leader are muted.
A Maundy Thursday Foot-Washing Service for Households
Ideally, this service takes place after the evening meal, and bed or quiet activity follows. If there are enough readers, please divide the parts into three as indicated. Have a basin of warm water and clean towels ready. Light a candle before you begin.
Reader: On the first Day of Passover, Jesus’s disciples said to him,
Peter: Where do you want us to go and get ready for the Passover meal?
Reader: So, Jesus sent Peter and John off, saying to them,
Jesus: When you go into the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house he enters, and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks, “Do you have a guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. It is there you are to prepare.
Reader: As it grew dark, Jesus arrived with the twelve. During supper, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Peter, who said to him,
Peter: Lord, are you going to wash my feet?
Jesus: You don’t understand what I am doing now, but you will understand later.
Reader: After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and returned to the table, Jesus said to them,
Jesus: Do you know what I have done to you? You call me “Teacher” and Lord, and you are right, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you, too, must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do.
The washing of feet takes place now. An adult could first wash the feet of a child. Together, you might sing or listen to the Taizé chant, Ubi Caritas.
Jesus: I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.
Prayers and thanksgivings may be offered now, for ourselves and others. Conclude with the following prayer:
Reader: Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and in the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. (from The Book of Common Prayer, p. 139)
Extinguish the candle. End the evening quietly.
Another idea for Maundy Thursday is to bake bread and exchange loaves with friends and neighbors. For a mostly hands-off recipe, you can even start this one the day before– it’s very simple and impressive. Another easy and delicious recipe does require kneading, but a stand mixer can take care of that for you. Write out the above prayer (“Lord Jesus, stay with us…”) to give with the bread. Our dinner tables are altars, too, and Jesus is present at both. Anna Ostenso Moore’s lively picture book, We Gather at this Table, with vibrant illustrations by Peter Kreuger, makes the connection between the bread that’s broken at church and the bread that’s shared at home.
Yes, it’s really hard to talk about the crucifixion with children. Adults have enough trouble with it. Please don’t skip over the hard parts, though. We do know how the story ends. We call Good Friday ‘good’ because we are an Easter people. Even in the name we give it, we do not look at this day alone for the terrible thing that happened, that Jesus died on the cross. We look all the way to Sunday, when Jesus rose again. We pause on Friday to remember that Jesus, whom we love, died on a dark day when soldiers shamed him, nearly all his friends left his side, and he wasn’t even sure that God was with him. We tell the story of what happened that day because it is vital for our children to hear: Jesus was afraid, he suffered, he died . . . and God turned his fear, his suffering, and his dying into hope, wholeness, and new life.
We tell this story—our Christian story—over and over again because it tells us the truth: not that there is no darkness, but that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”Remembering that gives us comfort and makes us bold, helps us encourage others and find goodness in the most difficult of days. We are Easter people because we have been to the cross and the grave and we know the promise God makes to us in Jesus: God’s power and grace can transform anything; God’s love is stronger than the cross, stronger than death itself.
You might bring some sweetness to this bitter day in a traditional way, by baking hot cross buns, a custom that dates to Saxon times. My husband makes this recipe.
Jesus said, “It is completed.” Bowing his head, he gave up his life. —John 19:30
When Jesus died that day on the cross
all creation together sighed, “This is a great loss.”
I continue to learn from the wisdom of others who are in this work of articulating good theology for everyone, especially children and families. My friend Presbyterian minister and author Traci Smith writes compellingly about children and atonement theology here, and in this post she and another friend, author and theologian Laura Alary, have a deep conversation about Lent, Holy Week and Easter.
*All my Holy Week and Easter posts are gathered here*