How much of Jesus' suffering and death to share with little ones is a question many parents struggle with.
It can be overwhelming to feel like you have to introduce so many facts and concepts and characters all at once, especially if your kids are perhaps more concerned with how close they are to getting to eat treats again than with the details of Jesus' passion.
How to handle it in your own family is going to depend, of course, on your particular kids.
But here's how we do it in our family:
We give them the facts.
Over the course of Holy Week each year, I read to my kids the story of Jesus' passion and death from the Bible.
They've heard it in Mass, but especially the little ones are probably not paying much attention there. Reading it at home allows them to really hear it.
There are differences in what parts of the story are included in each gospel account, (for what they are see here). Any one you choose would be great, since they're all the Bible. But I like to read from our Children's Bible, which compiles all of the events from each of the gospels into one narrative. It's also illustrated, which I find really helps to keep the kids' attention and assists with their reading comprehension.
I read some each day, focusing on the part of the story that happened on that particular day of the week.
I don't leave out any parts or soften anything, even for very little kids. I just read it to them as is, and we look at the pictures.
Even though my two year old isn't ready to understand everything that happens in the story, and he's certainly not ready to grasp the horrors of Jesus' suffering, I do think he is ready to hear about it.
I tell all the kids that we're going to read the story first, with no interruptions, then talk about it afterwards.
Once the story is read, I let the kids lead the conversation.
Some kids are going to listen, and then just want to move on. That's fine. Especially for toddlers, my focus is just that they listen. Hearing it in its entirety will plant the seeds for deeper reflection and understanding later. My toddlers have never been upset by hearing the story.
For my pre-schoolers and younger grade school kids, I want to make sure they understand the basics of what happened.
This is what I'd like them to know:
- The Last Supper is when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends the disciples. Passover is the day the Jewish people remember when God saved them from being slaves in Egypt. This happened on Holy Thursday night.
- Jesus's friend Judas left the supper and betrayed Jesus by telling the Jewish priests where Jesus would be so they could arrest him. The high priest, Caiaphas, wanted to get rid of Jesus because he could see how much the people liked him and he worried the people wouldn't listen to him anymore and would listen to Jesus instead.
- Still that night, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gesthsemane. He was very worried about all the terrible things he knew were about to come, but he was willing to do what God wanted him to do.
- Judas came with many people and found Jesus in the garden. Jesus was arrested.
- Peter followed behind Jesus to see what happened to him. When people asked him if he knew Jesus, he got scared and lied and said he didn't know Jesus at all.
- The next morning, on Good Friday, the high priest turned Jesus over to the governor, Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate knew Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. But Pontius Pilate worked for Rome, and it was his job to make sure the people didn't make trouble. He wanted to let Jesus go, but all the people kept shouting "crucify him!" He had Jesus whipped to see if that would make the people happy, but they kept shouting "crucify him!" Pontius Pilate was a weak man, so even though he knew it was not right, he ordered his soldiers to crucify Jesus.
- Jesus had to carry his heavy cross out of the town of Jerusalem, up the hill to Golgotha. It was very hard to do. He fell down many times. The soldiers thought Jesus might not make it up the hill at all, so they made a man named Simon of Cyrene help him.
- Jesus' hands and feet were nailed to the cross, and he was left to die there, in between two criminals who were also being crucified that day, as a punishment for their crimes.
- The people in the crowd made fun of Jesus, the soldiers mocked him and took his clothing. Only one disciple, John, and Mary, Jesus' mother, and two other women stayed with Jesus while he was dying. All of his other friends and followers ran away.
- Jesus was on the cross for three hours, from noon to three o'clock. Then he died.
- The soldiers took his body down from the cross and gave him to his mother, Mary.
- A rich man named Joseph of Arimathea came and took Jesus' body and laid it in his own tomb and covered the entrance with a stone.
If they have questions, I answer them. If they don't have questions, that's fine.
I want my older kids to learn more details of the story and have a deeper understanding of the people involved and their motivations, but that comes with time and multiple exposures to the story.
If my kids ask me, "Why? Why did Judas do that? Why did Pontius Pilate do that? Why did the people do that? Why did God want it? Why did Jesus let them?" I try to answer with truth and compassion but not too many details.
Judas and Peter and Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and Herod and the good and bad thieves and the crowd are all weak in different ways. They are all sinners like us. They hurt Jesus. But so do we hurt Jesus when we sin. The thing that makes them different from one another is whether they trusted God and asked for forgiveness after they sinned, or if they didn't. The same is true of us.
It is because people don't love God enough that God had to send Jesus to suffer and die for us. Jesus came to make up in a big way for all of our sins, big and little. From the sin committed by Adam and Eve, all the way to the sins that people are committing today, even the sins we ourselves commit.
Jesus loved God so much and loved us so much, that he willingly went through all that suffering. Jesus loved YOU so much that he died for YOU, even though he was God and could've stopped all of it at any time.
Even though Jesus suffered so much, this is a story with a happy ending. We just have to make it through Holy Saturday, our day of waiting and preparing, to find the joy of Easter morning, when Jesus comes back to life and triumphs over death and saves us all.
That's what I tell them.
Even though this is my little kids' first (and mostly only) exposure to heavy concepts like betrayal and suicide and torture and death, I have found that they have always been able to see through all of that and understand that Jesus' passion is a story of love.
I think even the littlest kids deserve to hear it.