A couple of weeks ago, I arrived home late on a Thursday after a Holy Week service, and my five year old was still awake in bed. Hugging him goodnight, his eyes were wide as he whispered “Mom, why did they take it all away?” He was asking about part of the church service he had seen that evening. I realized how close he was paying attention to what was happening, and how powerful religious ritual can be.
This is the first year he attended evening worship in the week leading up to Easter, when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. What we call Holy Week is full of special liturgies focusing on significant moments like Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, his crucifixion, and resurrection.
My son had attended our Maundy Thursday liturgy, that concludes with a ceremonial stripping of the altar. It is a symbolic representation of Jesus’ betrayal and abandonment. While a cantor sings a psalm of lament, everything that can be removed from the inside of the church is taken away: cushions, cloths, candles, flowers. The lights are dimmed, the space is left completely bare, and people leave in silence. The ritual creates a palpable feeling of emptiness and sadness as we anticipate Good Friday.
His curiosity about that particular moment in the service was both earnest and endearing. This is where the rubber meets the road for a parent; when a child asks a question about faith. I may be a religious professional, but; if I can’t explain what we do in church to my five year old, then how much do I really know? So I answered as simply as possible: that this was a sad service to remember what happened the day before Jesus died. We stripped the church because some of his friends were mean to him and left him all alone.
He took that in for a moment and then asked his next question: “So, Sunday is Easter, right?” “Yes, when Jesus is alive again.” “So they’ll bring all of it back inside?” “Yes, they’ll bring it all back inside, and more.” I promised the church would look spectacular on Sunday to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. And that was enough for him to go to sleep. He sat quietly through the solemn worship of Good Friday. And the church did look spectacular on Easter Sunday.
Five year olds are full of fantastic questions. Their observations and queries make you realize how much you know, as well as how much you take for granted, until a child asks “why?”.
I have had the privilege of sharing in a Passover Seder, and witnessing a child’s ritual participation in that holy meal. I’ve watched children praying alongside their parents at a mosque. Every Sunday I see children receive Holy Communion with their families. I know they are taking in and trying on faith as they grow and participate in their parents’ religious practices. I give thanks for their curiosity and observations that inspire me to question and see things with childlike wonder.