On the day before Palm Sunday, a group of church people, directed by Ruth Mock, came into St Matthew’s to prepare for ‘Experience Easter‘. They went to work with fabric and greenery, pebbles and props to create a series of six displays which were to be used to tell the Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. And a fabulous job they did, too – the church looks great!
‘Experience Easter’ came (like a lot of good things) from the Diocese of Gloucester as an attempt to engage children and adults with the message of Easter. We live in a world where, increasingly, people are not familiar with even the basic elements of the Christian story. ‘Experience Easter’, as its name suggests, it not just about telling the Easter story: rather it aims to get participants to ‘experience’ the dynamic of Holy Week and Easter in a journey through six ‘stations’.
We start with the ‘Hopes and Dreams’ of Palm Sunday. Those who take part in ‘Experience Easter’ are asked what they hope for, what they dream of. Some talk about their career ambitions – especially if they want to be a pop star or professional footballer. Others share their hope that a family member will recover from illness.
We tell them that the inhabitants of Jerusalem dreamt of a day when God would send a saviour to rescue them from their oppressors, the Roman Empire. Riding into the city on the back of a donkey, Jesus looks like a saviour – albeit an unlikely one. He is greeted as a king by cheering crowds. Going against everything we usually say to children when they come into church (‘be quiet!’), we invite the children to wave palm leaves and shout as the crowds did: HOSANNA! They process around the church and are then invited to sit (near the font) to hear about ‘The Servant King’.
What kind of king did Jesus know himself to be? And how can a king be a servant? Jesus kneels in humility, like a lowly slave, and washes the feet of his disciples. We explain to the children that, in Jesus’ day, when you arrived at someone’s home you would do so on foot. Having walked through the hot, dusty streets – trying your best to avoid the ‘messages’ left by donkeys and other creatures – your sandaled feet would be in quite a state. Your host might instruct a slave to wash your feet before dinner. But who would choose such a job? In this station, the leader offers to wash the feet of one of the children taking part. (It’s a moving experience to be the person doing the washing.) Drying the child’s feet with a towel, we explain that Jesus said he was giving an example: that those who follow the Servant King should also serve. We ask the children to think how they might serve others.
In the next station, we gather around a table set for a meal – the last supper at which Jesus explains to his disciples that he will die, giving his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out. The station is called ‘Remember Me’ and we ask the children if they have something at home that reminds them of someone special. Children talk about photographs of pets and grandparents that have died. Others have precious objects, like a teddy or necklace that belonged to a family member. Jesus takes bread and wine, gives thanks to God, and shares them with his friends. ‘Do this’, he says, ‘to remember me.’ We give the children a small piece of pitta bread and some blackcurrant squash (no, not real wine!) to eat and drink, and invite them to remember something about Jesus.
After the meal, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane. There he wrestles with the agony of what he must face. But his friends can’t even stay awake to support him and one of them will betray him. This station is called ‘Alone’. Children from Year 3 at the school had prepared poems about loneliness and they show a deep and moving appreciation of what it feels like to be lonely. In our Garden of Gethsemane, we read words of scripture that Jesus may have thought about: how God is always with us, even in our darkest hours and that, with God in our lives, we are never alone.
Next, we move to the Cross. As you can imagine, this is a difficult subject for all of us, never mind primary school children. But even young children have the capacity to engage with difficult things. We ask them to sit in silence, holding a small cross, and looking at the wooden cross which stands in the pulpit, draped with red fabric. We ask them to share what the scene makes them think or feel. A number of them talk about the sadness, to think that Jesus died in pain. We explain that the station is called ‘Sharing Our Sorrows’ as we think of how God comes into our world with all its darkness and brokenness to share our lives, sorrows and all. We invite the children to bring their thoughts and prayers (and the crosses they have been holding), and to leave them at the foot of the cross before moving on.
If this was a Holy Week service for adults, we might end there and invite people to come back to church on Easter Sunday to hear the next part of the story. But we don’t do that with children; we don’t leave them with the sadness of the cross. The final station is, of course, ‘Resurrection’. We have a beautiful Easter garden with an empty tomb set up in the sanctuary of the church and invite the children, like those women on the first Easter day, to look into the tomb. What do you think those women felt? Afraid? Worried? Excited?
‘Experience Easter’ ends with the children being given time to ask questions and to look again at the six stations that tell the story. They are also given a small chocolate egg to take away and challenged to remember, when Easter comes and they open their Easter eggs, the story that they have shared through ‘Experience Easter’.
Many thanks to those who created the six stations and to those who have loaned items to decorate them. Everyone who comes into church will appreciate what has been achieved. ‘Experience Easter’ is a wonderful thing and I hope we will be able to repeat it in future years.
I’m writing this in Holy Week: for me, the full experience of Easter still lies ahead. But our prayer is that many visiting the church for an Easter service, or simply coming in to look around at the stations, will experience the Easter message for themselves: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world for good.