It is that time of year again. No, I am not referring to the dozens of brightly-colored eggs filled with Reese’s or arguing with toddlers about wearing bow-ties (both important in their own right), but the time of year when we often hear “Why did Jesus have to die?”
Parents and children’s ministers can’t make it from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday without fielding it at least once- and most of us don’t actually know what to say. We’ve touted God as one of love, and Jesus as our ever-present friend. We sang happy birthday to him just a few short months ago, and celebrated as the wise men showered him with gifts. We’ve told the stories of his baptism, his teachings and his miracles. And then… he dies.
To a child’s eye, this is a disturbing departure from the pattern of so many of their storybooks. As a society, we tend to shield children from the realities of violence, suffering, and death. I can count on one hand the number of children I typically see in Good Friday service. But there really isn’t getting around it- eventually, they catch on. And usually, they feel surprised at best and betrayed at worst. Or, in the words of a 5-year-old on his weekly Sunday school Zoom, “Why didn’t you TELL me he was going to die?!”
So let’s talk about the answer to the inevitable question we are all hearing this time of year. Or, rather- answers, because really there are two: one for younger children and one for older children and adults. (Let us not kid ourselves that many adults are wondering the same thing and are afraid to ask.)
The simplest answer, best for young children: “Jesus died so he could come back to life and everyone would know God is real.” Curtains. Go hunt for eggs. Okay- not really, but you get the idea: with young children, the best approach is to keep it simple, while being honest and confident in your answer. Look them in the eye, and smile. This is the good news, after all!
Now- the full answer; appropriate for older children and teenagers: “Jesus did not die. He was killed. Those in power, did not want to give up their power. And Jesus spoke of disrupting the system which kept those powerful few in control. He was a threat. He was a prophet who painted a picture of a better way of life. And he was killed for treason against the state. The good news, is that this was not the final word. God’s love is greater than our own self-centeredness, our own evil ways of treating one another, and our own fears of change. Good Friday reminds us that people can be terrible, and often deny the divine when it’s right in front of them. Easter Sunday reminds us that not even that denial can stop the kingdom from coming, and the spirit from changing hearts.”
Why is this important? Because the death of Jesus says as much about us as it does about God. We were the ones who betrayed Jesus. Or, in the words of Bob Marley, “How long must they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?”
Let us be prepared to see the divine when it is right in front of us. Let us be open to the ways we can dismantle an unjust power system. How can we make the last, first and the first, last? Therein lies the really good news.