I don't know how to explain Easter to my children—Penny, 5, and William, 2. I've tried two approaches so far. I've talked about it directly: "Some people killed Jesus and he died and God made him alive again."
When I said that, William asked, "What does died mean?" I tried to explain death as something that takes people away forever. Penny asked, "Where is Jesus now?" and when I said, "Jesus is in heaven and all around us," she responded, "But where is Jesus now?"
Then Penny went to Sunday school last week, where her teachers decided to reenact the Passion of Jesus. I was sitting in church when, halfway through the sermon, one of the teachers brought Penny to me. She sat by my side, coloring, for the rest of the service. Her teacher later explained that when Penny had seen Jesus nailed to the cross, she stood up to leave.
I asked Penny later, "What happened in Sunday school? Did you learn something about Jesus?"
Without looking at me she said, "He died. I needed to see you, Mom."
"Do you know what happened when he died?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
The direct route didn't get us far.
Then there's the indirect approach. Another time this Lenten season, I asked William, "Do you know what Easter is all about?"
His eyes lit up the way they do when he knows the answer to a question: "Bunnies!"
"Well," I said, "kind of."
I understood his confusion. He came home from preschool with Easter eggs. A man at our local coffee shop gave him a chocolate bunny. And we have an "Easter tree" on our kitchen table, with forsythia in bloom and painted wooden eggs dangling from the branches. So, I thought, maybe I could explain Easter using the springtime symbols, and we could talk about death and rebirth, about caterpillars and butterflies or chicks hatching or crocuses in bloom.
But the analogies fall apart so quickly. First, nothing in the natural world is brought from death to life. What's dead stays dead. Furthermore, suggesting that the Cross and the Empty Tomb are just like the daffodils threatens to cheapen our faith and hope in Christ.
We didn't have this trouble with Christmas. Although we haven't tried to explain the Virgin Birth yet, our kids have the story down. They know about babies being born, and they're happy to take our word for it that God wanted to live with us to heal us and care for us and teach us and forgive us. The birth story was easy.
One of the reasons I have trouble explaining Easter to my children is that I have trouble explaining it to myself. Even the New Testament writers couldn't find adequate words or images to explain what happened that weekend in Jerusalem. While the facts remain easy—Jesus died on the cross, and God raised him from the dead—understanding the significance of those facts remains a challenge.
Again and again, New Testament writers describe the impact of Jesus' death and resurrection as a "mystery." In Paul's long defense of the reality of the Resurrection, he concludes: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51-52). In Ephesians, we read of the "mystery of God's will" in reconciling all things through Christ (Eph. 1:9) and "the mystery of the gospel" (Eph 6:19). In Colossians, we read that the "mystery" is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).
Christians believe that Jesus' death was more than martyrdom, that it actually effected forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and humanity. The Resurrection bolsters that faith as God's validation of Jesus' willing self-sacrifice. And yet, as liturgical traditions assert, when we describe the events of Holy Week, we proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
I don't mean to dismiss the intelligibility of our faith or to imply that it cannot be explained in words. But for now, I'm not going to worry about it if my words fail to convey the message of Easter to our children. Instead, I am beginning to look for ways that our practices as Christians can convey the message of sin and salvation, brokenness and healing, rupture and forgiveness, death and resurrection.
Our children will witness some of those concepts in real life, I hope, when they watch their parents snap at each other and then reconcile, or when they receive a hug after they have misbehaved, or when they hear us talk about our hope of seeing their deceased grandmother once again. They will also enact these concepts as they participate in the life of the church.
As it happened, last Sunday was communion Sunday. Because Penny had excused herself from witnessing the crucifixion in Sunday school, she unwittingly had invited herself to the Lord's Table. Together we walked to the front. She tasted the bread dipped in juice and watched me take bread dipped in wine. I don't know how much she heard when our pastor read the story of the Last Supper. I don't know if she noticed that we partook of those elements in front of a wooden cross. But I know that she practiced remembering Jesus' death and resurrection as a part of the body of Christ. She participated in the final song, raising her hands in the air and singing "My Jesus, My Savior."
On Easter Sunday, my children will not be able to explain the meaning of death and resurrection. But I have faith that they will participate in the faith and hope that come from Jesus' gift of new life.