The Danger of Good Friday Suspense

The true story of one traumatized little girl led me to reevaluate the way I teach and celebrate the events of Easter.

Next week is Holy Week where churches around the world will be remembering Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ trial, His crucifixion, and the joy of Resurrection Sunday. This special time of year is precious to so many and full of traditional celebration.

I recently ran across a Facebook post by a friend (Gayle Young) that reminded me of a story she’d told me before. The true story of one traumatized little girl led me to reevaluate the way I teach and celebrate the events of Easter.

Let me share her post in the purple block quotes with some interruptions for comment.

Classic Signs of Trauma

Gayle Young: I worked as a counselor in an elementary school and had a little girl come back after spring break very different than the little girl before spring break —(friendly, polite and easy going to a loner, self-centered rude, high strung little gal —- “A” student was very soon making consistent Ds and Fs and didn’t care!

If red alarm bells are not going off in your head, they should be. These are the classic signs of possible abuse. Some trauma has happened in this girl’s life. Responsible adults should take note and figure out just what happened.

The Root of the Problem

Gayle Young: It took a lot of visiting with her one on one before I discovered the root was in a night at the camp her family attended over spring break. The lesson had been on what Jesus did for us on the cross and that He did it because of her sin. The lesson was over at that point— THEY NEVER TOLD THE REST OF THE STORY!

At this point you may be thinking what I thought several years ago: What’s the big deal? The disciples didn’t know the rest of the story at that point. They had to wait for Resurrection Sunday. Why can’t kids (and the rest of us) experience that same thing and wait too? We’ll get into that in a moment, but first I want to set the background for those not familiar with the traditional way Holy Week is celebrated.

Traditional Ash Wednesday – The Seriousness of Sin

I grew up in a very traditional Lutheran church and the Easter season was my favorite time of year. It began on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Resurrection Sunday. We’d go to church that day to remember how lost we are in our sin. It was a service of confession (Psalm 51) that emphasized our helplessness without Christ. God is holy, righteous, and just. In our sin we cannot even approach Him. The pastor even gave us a smudge of ash on our foreheads that we left the service wearing as a reminder of the curse of sin and death. As the beginning of the Easter season called Lent, the goal of Ash Wednesday was to heighten the celebration of Easter by beginning with our state before God without Christ.

Do you see a potential here for kids and first timers to miss the point and react the same way as the girl in Gayle’s school?

The Lenten Fast (which looks different depending on your tradition and/or physical limitations) was designed to draw us closer to Christ “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8 NIV).

Traditional Palm Sunday – Jesus’ Triumphal Entry

Then comes Palm Sunday. This was a grand celebration mirroring as best we could the events of Matthew 21:1-11. Purple banners filled the front of the church and the stained glass windows seemed to sparkle with an extra shine. The celebratory atmosphere was contagious. The youth group processed in carrying giant palm branches while the church sang “Hallelujah” for the first time since Lent began. It seemed like we sang every Hallelujah song in the book, though I’m sure it wasn’t quite that many.

Traditional Maundy Thursday – The Last Supper & Judas’s Betrayal

In the church where I grew up, your first communion was a big deal. In eighth grade, following confirmation class, you were invited with a parent to a special Passover supper on Maundy Thursday evening. We had the entire Passover supper (with the wine greatly watered down). It was amazing to experience the Passover meal Jesus shared with His disciples the night before He was betrayed. The pastor leading the meal inserted where Jesus raised the cup and broke the bread to share with His disciples. It was very moving. (If you’ve never been to a Seder supper or Passover meal, I highly recommend it. Jews for Jesus even give special demonstrations of Christ in the Passover. Great stuff!)

Following this special supper (which in my church was actually served in an upper room), we joined the whole congregation for a special communion service. In that service, we walked through the Scriptures detailing that Last Supper where Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, sent Judas out to betray Him, and instituted Communion (Mt. 26:17-30, Mk. 14:12-26, Lk. 22:7-39 and Jn. 13:1-17:26). My class of eighth graders had our first communion as we then celebrated the rite with the rest of the congregation.

Once again, do you see the potential for children and first timers to miss the good news in this type of service?

Traditional Good Friday Service – Jesus’ Trial and Death

There is a dark cloud that seems to hang over a Good Friday service, much like that felt in funeral services. All decorations are stripped away leaving the church bare with only a black cloth draped over the cross. The room is filled with somber silence from the moment you walk into the room until you leave the building at the end.

The service walked through Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. We would sing songs like “Man of Sorrows (What a Name)” while leaving off the last victorious verse. When it came time for the crucifixion, some years the sound of a hammer striking a nail rang out over the silent congregation. The service ended once the guard was posted in front of the tomb. People stayed to pray as long as they wanted and then left in silence.

This is where the story ended for the girl in Gayle’s school. Jesus is dead. The Romans killed Him and buried Him. For most people, that’s the end of the story. Children and first timers may not know that this is not the end of the story. This can cause major spiritual and physical repercussions!

Correcting the Girl’s Destructive Path

Gayle Young: As she retold the story to me, I listened without interrupting. Then when she was finished, I told her that what they told her was true but there was more to the story. As I told her how His friends gently took Him off the cross and placed Him in a borrowed tomb, her eyes got big and she leaned in. When I told her about the big stone and the guard, she asked why? When I told her it didn’t hold Him in that tomb—that He walked out alive. She said — “why didn’t they tell me that???!!! I thought He was still hanging on the cross and hurting because of my sin! I killed Jesus.” I told her he died for all sin — her’s and mine! But that the penalty has been paid! It’s done and that is why He said, “It is finished.” Death was over and new life possible because He did NOT stay dead, HE LIVES! He died, but Ge overcame death and walked out of the grave. He’s alive today and seated in Heaven with God!

The weight of the world was lifted off of that little girl’s shoulders! She needed the whole story! All children do. That is the reason I think it is absolutely wrong to teach the crucifixion without also teaching the resurrection in the same lesson!

Final Thoughts

Easter is truly a time for celebration. In my traditional church, we always celebrated with trumpets, sunrise services, lots of music, new dresses and Easter bonnets. Those things are good and made sweeter by remembering all that came before.

Still, PLEASE think about the children and first timers as you plan your services. Tell people that the story is not over yet and to come back to hear the rest. Better yet, foreshadow the happy ending. Tell people that Jesus died and came back to life for our sins. It’s ok to focus on Good Friday, but NEVER leave the story there.

Gayle Young: As children’s teacher WE MUST NEVER, NEVER, NEVER teach the crucifixion without also teaching the resurrection in the SAME SETTING!!

Everything that is in me encourages you all to please, please, please take this seriously!!

Amen, Gayle! Thank you for that word of caution.

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