Last Thursday I took my kids with me to our church’s Maundy Thursday service. I wasn’t really sure how they would react. It is, after all, a fairly somber and dark service, whose purpose is to lead its participants through the fearful events of Jesus’ final days. I had some reservations about even exposing a couple of impressionable six-year-olds to the full weight of the Easter story, but my apprehension intensified when they informed me, after watching a steady stream of volunteers moving to the front to read the selected Scripture readings, that they wanted to read one too.
Initially, I was fairly reluctant to let them go up. First, while their reading is pretty good for grade one (in my unbiased opinion), there were a handful of words that I was fairly certain they had never seen before and would likely be unable to read. Second, the readings were, well, focused on Jesus’ crucifixion—not exactly PG material, to put it mildly. All in all, it didn’t seem like a great idea.
But two six-year-olds loudly whining about not being allowed to go read at the front in the middle of what is supposed to be a quiet and somber ceremony didn’t seem like a great idea either, so I hastily leafed through the program, desperately searching for the shortest of the fourteen readings (preferably, containing the fewest foreign words!) for the kids to read. I found one that was a mere paragraph long and it was agreed that they would each read two sentences and then blow out the candle together. Peace and quiet was preserved.
And so, I found myself in the somewhat unexpected position of standing at the front of the room, coaching my beaming twins through a rather grim Easter reading which included such words as “Golgotha,” “skull,” “Nazarene,” and “crucified” followed by the the blowing out of a candle, symbolizing the darkness of that horrible day when God subjected himself to the worst that human beings could inflict upon him. They did a great job, but I was very relieved when their task was completed. I was also very curious to find out about their impressions of the service. What does a six-year-old think about narrating an execution scene for a subdued gathering in a dimly lit church basement?
Turns out, they didn’t have much to say. When I asked them what they thought as we were driving home they didn’t seem terribly interested in talking about it in much depth. They probably just enjoyed the opportunity to read in public and the attention that it garnered. But I was curious—I wanted to know what they made of the idea that for some bizarre reason Jesus’ death is something that is remembered and celebrated in the religious tradition of which they and their parents are a part. When I pressed them a little more, both simply said something to the effect of “I wish Jesus didn’t have to die.”
Today I was reading W. Waite Willis’s Theism, Atheism, and the Doctrine of the Trinity and came across the following paragraph, summarizing Jürgen Moltmann‘s view of the significance of Jesus’ final hours:
Christian theology becomes relevant only when it takes the theodicy question as an “absolute presupposition,” only “when it accepts this solidarity with present suffering.” Because these issues are found in the heart of the Christian faith itself, in the crucifixion of Jesus and his dying cry, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Christian theology must be done “within earshot” of the cross. “All Christian theology and all Christian life,” Moltmann says, “is basically an answer to the question which Jesus asked as he died.”
Six-year-olds know, I think, that something is wrong with the world. They may not be able to use important-sounding words like “theodicy,” but they seem to have some idea that things aren’t as they ought to be, and that something needs to be done about this. They know that bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it, and vice versa; they know that God doesn’t act in ways that are as obvious as we might like; they know that prayers aren’t always answered as we would prefer. They know that the world needs fixing.
A couple of years ago one of the kids’ preschool friends was killed in a tragic traffic accident and they asked about him as we were getting out of the car after the service on Thursday. This boy’s death has left a deep impression on them. It doesn’t seem right that such permanent loss could be the result of ordinary everyday activities like getting groceries, crossing streets, forgetting to look both ways just once before running toward dad at the end of the day. Nevertheless, they seem satisfied with the idea that their friend will “rose” like Jesus did some day. Resurrection has to be enough—for them, and for all of us—because nothing else will do.
I found myself thinking about last Thursday frequently over the course of Easter weekend. I, too, wish Jesus didn’t have to die. But the world does need “fixing,” and fixing of a more complete and lasting kind than anything we are able to conjure up on our own. Some day my kids will probably ask me why God didn’t just fix the world some other way—a way that didn’t involve nasty words like “Golgotha” and “crucified.” And I’m not sure I’ll have a neat and tidy answer to give them. I’ll probably say something like, “whatever we might think of the way God has chosen to redeem his world, it remains his way—the way he has chosen to do it.” A God whose defeat of evil involves entering and experiencing it himself will likely always seem a somewhat strange one, but it’s what he has done. Out of death comes life; out of darkness comes light.
Thanks be to God.