Years ago, when my now-middle-schooler daughter was just a toddler, I remember taking her to the Stations of the Cross at our parish. At the time, most of what her experience of Jesus had been was all tenderness – from babyhood, she blew kisses to the tabernacle as we left church.
My master’s degree in theology had a heavy emphasis on catechesis, I had already written curricula at that point – but something about having to convey the truth of the Way of the Cross to my own little one was a formidable task. I don’t remember the exact explanations that I offered – something along the lines of, “Look – Jesus [fell down, had his garments taken off, was nailed/got owies] because He loves you and didn’t want you to hurt.” (I also ended up writing a Way of the Cross for toddlers in case other parents struggled, too.)
So, yes – if I were to give practical advice to parents of toddlers, I would suggest explaining the Way of the Cross to them simply, in the context of God’s love for them. I have heard parents express concern about sharing the reality of the crucifixion with their young children. However, I would argue it is easier to share with them than most realities are. At some point, your child will go to his first funeral. At some point, someone she loves will be in the hospital. Life is full of suffering and pain.
In fact, the suffering and death of Christ is the only suffering that has ever made sense. The story of the cross, after all, is one with a happy ending. Although wholly undeserved, it is not a stretch to believe that a God who is infinite love and mercy would do anything for his people. If you are to help your child (or yourself) find any hope in the suffering of life, there is nowhere to turn but the cross.
An Invitation to Union
Without the Way of the Cross, suffering is meaningless. But with Christ’s cross, we are invited to unite our own suffering to that of our Beloved. Mysteriously, he allows us to partake in the work of redemption, through this union with him. My husband and I have been married for almost thirteen years. When he is in pain, I am in pain. When he is wounded (physically or emotionally) I suffer, too. It is impossible to experience deep union with one who is suffering, and to remain untouched. So it is with Christ – you can not enter into union with him (the deepest desire of our weary hearts) without being touched by the cross.
And this reality is not an effect of Divine justice, but rather Divine Love. When we reach for him to take up our cross and follow him, and when we then find ourselves touched by suffering, it is not a wrathful gaze that meets ours. It is a tender, loving one.
There is a reason why the saints all suffered so much. You cannot draw that closely in union with Christ to embrace him, without embracing the cross, too. Yet, any one of the saints would tell you the same thing – he is worth it. Union with him is worth embracing the cross for.
So, too, would the innocent love of our toddlers tell us. As much as parents worry that their little ones will be afraid of the cross, if most toddlers are introduced to it in the context of love, they will respond with love. They will want to “kiss Jesus’ boo-boos” or hold the crucifix close. (They might also drop it, want to play with it, or scream when you try to take it back. They are toddlers, after all.)
Yet, this natural acceptance in this – that the crucifixion is part of loving Christ – should move us to accepting the cross, too.
An Invitation to Contemplation
One of the greatest gifts of catechizing children – whether as a parent, godparent, grandparent, or teacher – is seeing the faith with fresh eyes. We are used to the Gospel – perhaps too accustomed to it. Our hearts are not as moved by it as they should be. To children, everything is new. Every new revelation is met with a mixture of wonder and disbelief. I am reminded of the children’s book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. In the book, a rag tag family of kids muscles their way into a church’s nativity play…having never heard the story of the Gospel. Hilarity and profundity ensue, and that is precisely what it is like to catechize children.
This Lent, especially if we have young children in our lives, let us accept this invitation to fresh contemplation. Let their early encounters with the story of the Paschal Mystery remind you that you, likewise, have barely scraped the surface of the depths found therein.