"We talk about Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death and how the sky turned dark and the earth stopped breathing. But the children are assured that isn’t the end of the story."
Holy Week Service with Children
At St. Aidan’s in Alexandria, Virginia, more than half the congregation is families with children. That being said, several years back we realized that few of our kids – and few of the parents – came to our traditional evening Holy Week services. We had recently introduced a Family Ash Wednesday service to great enthusiasm, so we decided to offer a Family Holy Week service as well.
Our family-friendly service allows us to walk through Jesus’ last days, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. We do this through stories, songs and lots of movement. Older children take on roles that help us imagine ourselves in the scene.
The timing of the event is a little tricky, since our local schools are closed during Holy Week for Spring Break. But we’ve found that scheduling the service on a weekday evening before Holy Week works best. Since we started this service, we can’t imagine ending Lent without it!
Entering into Holy Week
We begin our service outside, where we listen to the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem in triumph. One child finds a “donkey colt” that we follow into the church while waving palms (ordered early for Palm Sunday). Once gathered inside, we hear about how Jesus and his friends traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. We talk briefly about Passover, the 8-day festival that celebrates God's redemption of the Israelites from slavery to freedom.
Next, another older child carries a water jug and leads us to the room where we will have our Last Supper. We hear the story of Jesus sharing bread and wine with his friends, and then we share bread and wine. In the first years of holding this service, we set beautiful low tables and had a kid-friendly meal together (carrots, grapes, and sometimes mac and cheese). Now that the service has grown, we just have big hunks of bread, with an opportunity to dip bread into wine.
Footwashing, the Passion, and the Tomb
After we eat, we tell the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and we wash one another’s feet. Usually, the kids have their feet washed and then wash their parents’ feet. Interestingly, far more adults have their feet washed at this service than at our traditional service. It is beautiful to watch the children serving their parents in this way.
Finally, we walk to the altar. We stand under the cross as we listen to the story of Jesus going up the mountain with his friends to pray. We talk about Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death and how the sky turned dark and the earth stopped breathing. But the children are assured that isn’t the end of the story.
If the weather is good, we walk outside, where a make-shift tomb is sealed. We talk about how they laid Jesus’ body in a tomb and closed it with a giant rock. We explain how on Sunday morning, the saddest day became the happiest as Jesus’ mother Mary and the other women discovered that the stone was rolled away. As we hear this part of the story, a kid dressed as an angel pushes away the stone in front of our tomb. A child dressed as Mary Magdalene looks into the empty tomb as the angel announces, “He is not here! He is risen!”
Finally, we hear how the women rushed to tell Jesus’ other friends the news, and how the risen Jesus began to meet them in funny places: like beaches, along the road, and in locked rooms. Jesus is present and alive with them in a new way. And on Easter we celebrate how he is present and alive with us in a new way too!
Tips for a Children's Holy Week Service
Here are some points to consider in planning a service like this.
- Order palms to arrive early
- Arrange for older kid "actors"
- Find supplies for costumes, and items to make a "tomb"
(We use pageant costumes, and for the tomb we use chairs with swaths of brown/grey fabric)
- Learn the stories by heart and tell them dramatically
- As always with kids, don't worry if things don't go quite as you expect!
Elizabeth Rees is the associate rector at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, VA and part of the creation team for the Center for Spiritual Deepening at St. Aidan’s. She has three young children (5, 9, and 12) and is always looking for ways to make church and spirituality more welcoming and relevant to kids and their families. You can read more of her work at reverendelizabeth.blogspot.com.