Holy Week with Children

Several years ago, I was attending Holy Family’s Good Friday service. Behind me a precocious three year old was asking questions. Dad, what’s happening? Dad, did him die? Dad, is this sad? Dad, did Father Sarah die him? Is him going to be alive again? You could see the wheels turning and sense that the pieces were falling into place. Jesus–the one who died during the events of Holy Week–this is the Jesus who is alive again on Easter morning. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t always so. Indeed, some of the children in the parish had a lively debate going in the children’s liturgy last year: Did Jesus really die or did he only pretend to die? Was Jesus really raised from the dead or were people seeing a ghost?
Holy Week with children can seem daunting, but there is nothing like watching the children of the Parish witness and respond to the drama of Holy Week. There is more to the story than the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Resurrection on Easter morning. When we walk with children through this time, we can answer their questions and share ours. What happened to Jesus and why? What does it have to do with the hope we share as Christians? Our hope is deeper and more real when the joyful Alleluias of Easter morning are put in the context of the events of Holy Week.

This year, join us for the services of Holy Week, and bring your children. There is a lot for them to seem. Join us to get it all started on Wednesday evening, when we will have a All Parish-friendly Stations of the Cross. This short service might be just the thing to help your family get ready for the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). Nursery care will be available for all of the services except Wednesday evening.

  • Palm Sunday: In lieu of Sunday School, Join us today at 9am in the Parish Hall. We will fold palm fronds into crosses. Children and adults are also invited to walk a set of interactive Stations of the Cross in the Library.
  • Wednesday Stations of the Cross, 6pm in the Nave
  • Maundy Thursday, March 24th @7pm
  • Good Friday, March 25th @ noon
  • Easter Vigil, March 26th @ 8pm

Selecting a Bible Storybook

Every year, right around this time, folks ask me about storybook Bibles that they might purchase for the young people in their lives.  I’ll begin by stating what may be obvious: Storybook Bibles have their limit. They are not meant to replace an actual Bible, but for young children they offer access to stories that might otherwise be quite opaque. In doing so, however, they never remain neutral (there is no neutral reader of Scripture anyway) and each storybook Bible reflects the context and perspectives of those who wrote and compiled it. That said, here are a couple that I recommend for pre-school to first grade.

We use a selection of Bible storybooks in our Church School classes and I have three favorites which I describe and link below.
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones: This book has wonderful illustrations and a very engaging layout. It begins by saying that the stories in the Bible are not about heroes and they aren’t about moral lessons; they are about God. Here is how the opening page of this storybook puts it: “Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing, It about God and what he has done.” I appreciate this approach to the Biblical stories and it is pretty unique in this respect.
Children of God Storybook Bible by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: This is another book with wonderful illustrations. Different stories are illustrated by different artists which gives the book a fun, unique feel. The stories are told in briefer fashion in this book than they are in the Jesus Storybook Bible and the layout makes it look more like a young children‘s book as opposed to a Bible. This book really tries to highlight God’s love for us and the command that we love one another. It does have the tendency to interpret the stories in light of moral lessons about faith, bravery, love, or the virtues, but in this it does a pretty decent job. The unique addition to this book is that each story ends in a short (7-10 word) prayer. I think this can be helpful for showing how we respond to the Biblical stories through prayer and celebration of who God is and what God has done. It can also be a nice way to introduce prayer to a young child.
The Children‘s Illustrated Bible by Selina Hastings: This book is probably for children on the older end of the ages I mentioned above and children through fourth or fifth grade might enjoy this storybook Bible. On the downside, the illustrations aren’t quite as engaging for small children, and the stories are a bit too wordy for them. The layout, is kind of like a history book with maps, text boxes with character descriptions, and quotations from Scripture. I like this book because it more directly cites Scripture and offers insight into historical context. For a child who is really interested in research (I had a children‘s Atlas and Medical Encyclopedia that I spent hours looking at as a child), likes to learn facts, or look at real photographs (as opposed to just illustrations). This could be a great next step or companion for the simpler and more colorful storybook Bibles.
Sometime around second or third grade, many children are ready to begin reading a study Bible in an accessible translation. It’s good practice to read Scripture together as a family. Indeed, in our Church School classes, this is when we begin to transition away from using Storybook Bibles, though these may still be enjoyable for children and easier for them to read aloud.


Observing a Quiet Advent

Today we hear from Sara Smith is a member of Holy Family’s Vestry and the Youth and Christian Education Commissions. Here, she offers a reflection on her family’s practice of marking the days of Advent with a simple reading of Scripture using an Advent calendar made with simple materials found around the home.  If you have a reflection about your family’s Advent practices and disciplines, let me know! We would love to hear your voice, too.


I love the season of Advent. Its quiet, contemplative pace offers a comforting contrast to the frantic and exhausting American December. I want to share the quiet and the story of Advent with my children, but it can be a struggle to drown out the December frenzy.

As I prepared for Advent last year, I wanted to mark this liturgical season in our home with practices my children could participate in fully. One of the ways we did this was by making our own Advent calendar together. I found excellent inspiration from other moms on Pinterest! I chose from projects that would allow us to mainly use items we had around the house. I especially liked the layout of this one, and the use of liturgical colors on this one, so I combined the two in our version.

The day we worked on the calendar was lovely outside, so the kids and I put on old clothes and smocks, and sat on the ground as we worked together. I found the activity a fun way to talk with them about why we mark this liturgical season; they always love a project and are eager to understand how we practice our faith.

Advent Calendar S. SmithSupplies:

  • Acrylic paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Paper towel tubes, cut in half
  • Ribbon/lace
  • Small clothes pins
  • Large stiff board (wood, poster board with foam—like the back of an old science project board 🙂
  • Bible verses: 1 for each day
  • Other small activities/odds and ends for stuffing pockets
  • Stapler

Before we painted, I cut the paper towel tubes in half. The kids and I painted a couple of coats on each tube–purple for the first two and the fourth weeks of Advent, and rose, the color of joy for the third, just like the candles on our Advent wreath–and after the paint dried, I stapled them at the bottom and marked a number on each tube “pocket”, starting with Advent 1. I stapled lace fabric scraps to the board, leaving space between staples for the clothespins.

For daily readings, I printed verses relating to birth of Christ from Matthew and Luke, and the first few verses from John. I divided and cut them up into sections that would allow one verse for each day. We folded and placed them into the pockets, and I added small odds and ends to some of the days, like Advent-themed coloring pages.

We placed the board and the wreath made at church on our dining room buffet, along with other Advent resources from Holy Family. On many nights in Advent, my oldest would (try to) read from that day’s verse, with help from one of us. I loved hearing her tiny voice tell the story of the Incarnation, and watching my youngest listen intently. We took down each day’s pocket to help the kids visualize the number of days that remained in the season. Honestly, this didn’t happen every day, or with all family members present each time. Hopefully, though, it happened enough for my kids to feel the quiet, contemplative pace of Advent at home as we waited for the birth of our Lord.


The Work of Retelling the Story: Nativity Pageant

Every parish has their own way of telling the story of the birth of Christ. Some, like the parish in which I was raised, develop or purchase elaborate plays, spending hours rehearsing the story of the nativity or an adaptation of it, presenting it in a series of shows. Others create videos. Still others choose a dramatic reading of the story. The aim of all is to invite the congregation into the story of God’s most magnificent work, dwelling among us in the person of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true and only hope.


As with many things at Holy Family, our method for retelling the story of the Nativity is one of a kind.  Every year the children of our parish gather on a weekend day sometime in the middle of November. They come in costumes determined by age or select costumes from among those we have on hand at the church. The youngest are barnyard animals. Children in the middle elementary years are angels, shepherds, and townspeople. Our fifth graders are assigned Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, soldiers, and the innkeeper. In a day full of logistical puzzles (naptimes, meals, children of all age groups running everywhere), the children act out scenes from the Nativity while several of our Parish’s skilled photographers take photos. Afterwards, several members of the parish select from among the photos, compiling them into a narrative slideshow of around fifteen minutes. This slideshow is timed manually to the reading of the Gospel of Luke woven with several hymns and carols at our Christmas Eve family service. The impact is pretty incredible and there’s always a wonderful buzz during the presentation.  The slideshow is not just a cool and cute way to tell the story.


While this story is shared in the context of a Christmas Eve Liturgy, it is not the only worshipful moment in the process. Members of our church gather intentionally, work together on various parts of the story, laugh together, keep children company as they make cards for members of our parish who are sick or shut-in. The whole day is marked out to focus on the work at hand: telling the story of God together. The word “work” is no accident here. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” All of our work is worship: whether we are taking photos, assembling costumes for a host of angels, acting out Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary, selecting photos, setting up projectors, timing slides, practicing the hymn music, hearing the words of the Gospel reading, or singing “Glory to God” together on Christmas Eve. All of our work is worship. All of our worship is work and it isn’t about us or the lovely children of our church.

Throughout the year, in the liturgy, in Church School, at VCS, we hear and share the story of God with one another. We respond in many and various ways to this story all year in worship, Christian education, outreach, in daily living and working together as community. The children who have been born and baptized in our congregation also participate in this. Indeed, there are always several adults who remark throughout the process of creating, practicing, and viewing the slideshow: “I remember when ______ was baptized” or “______ was the first baptism I witnessed here.” They have heard the wonderful stories of God and, once a year, they present this story–ancient and new–back to us. It is not only our children who receive the gift of God’s story on another’s lips, we do as well. In this way, the pageant photos are, as they should be, first and foremost about the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, the God we praise with our lives and work and the God who lives in the midst of the community that has been called to proclaim the good news of God in Christ to the ends of the earth.

Saint Potluck

As we have worked through the lives of the saints, we have learned that saints always point beyond themselves to Jesus Christ. They show us how members of the Church led lives of holiness in various times and places. Whenever we read stories and legends about the saints, we should keep at the front of our minds the question: What does this person’s life show us about God and who God is in Christ?

This week we will take a break from Church School for an intergenerational celebration of All Saints at 9am (Brunch and Saint Inspired fare) and 11am (Cupcakes to celebrate baptism and activities in the commons).

Everything we have done and learned thus far has prepared us for the liturgy of All Saints by reminding us to listen closely for stories of faithfulness and giving us a sense of the great Cloud of Witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).

By now your children (and you!) have learned a great deal about the Saints–Clare and Francis, Augustine and Monica, Mary Magdalene, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Luke the Evangelist–and you may have a good idea of what their lives were all about. We have focused on these saints with our Flat Saint project, in Sunday School, children’s liturgy, and here on the blog. Now, we close out our unit on the Saints with a festal celebration.Read stories about your family’s favorite saints and check out the list of suggestions below. Be creative! Dishes can be inspired by a saint’s location, symbol, story, or a food traditionally made on their feast day. Breakfast and finger foods are welcome.

Looking for a Saint inspired dish to bring to this Sunday’s Potluck brunch at 9?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Soul Cakes, a classic treat for All Saints’ Day (Here’s a short article about the tradition of Soul Cakes)
Mary, the Mother of Jesus: Baked Apple Roses
Mary Magdalene: Madeleines
Saint Francis: Tonsure cake
Saint Ambrose: Honey Cake
Saint Michael or Saint George: Dragon Bread
Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (Archangels): Angel Food Cake
Saint Lucia: Saint Lucia Buns
Saint Nicholas: Saint Nicholas Spice Cookies (many recipes here)

Once you’ve selected a Saint and a recipe, members of your family can write something about your saint on one index card and illustrate a scene from your saint’s life on another. Bring your index cards on Sunday and put them down next to your dish. We will feast in the memorial gardens if the weather is nice and the commons if it isn’t.

Flat Saints: Mary Magdalene

During our month of saints, we are hearing the stories of seven different saints from Scripture and tradition. There are many ways for our students to learn about their Saints. Check out some suggestions here. Come back all this month, for posts about our seven saints and remember to share what you and your family learn about the saints this month on Facebook with a photo of your flat saint out and about and #CHFSaints.

Saint Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles and all around cool lady.

I have seen the Lord. — John 20:18

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Life dates: First century

Feast day: July 22

Symbols: Red egg, cross, skull, perfume jar, the color red, book, candle or torch.

Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus during his lifetime. She was present at Jesus’ death and went with other women to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. She was the first to see the risen Christ and shared the news of his resurrection with the disciples. She is sometimes called “apostle to the apostles.” Even though Mary plays a significant role throughout all of the Gospels, she is never mentioned after.  It is believed that Mary Magdalene spent the remainder of her years preaching in France where she died.

Why the red egg? Perhaps the strangest of a Mary’s symbols in Christian art is the red egg. There are several possible stories for this symbol. Legend has it that after Christ’s death and resurrection, Mary went to share a meal with and preach to Emperor Tiberius, saying: “Jesus Christ is Risen!” The Emperor responds: “Christ has risen just as surely as the egg in your hand is red.” Upon saying this, the egg in Mary Magdalene’s hand turned red. Another story says that Mary Magdalene had with her at the crucifixion a basket of eggs which were made red by the blood of Christ, or alternatively, that she took a basket of white eggs to the tomb and after seeing the risen Christ noticed that the eggs were red. Whatever story you find most interesting, the symbol is clearly connected to Mary’s witnessing and proclaiming the risen Christ.

Books in the Christian Education Cabinet: The books in our Christian Education resource cabinet are always available for check out. Please remember to fill out and leave the card that comes with the library book and remember to return it when your family is finished.

Saint Mary Magdalene and the Red Egg
The Legend of the Red Egg
The First Easter

Activity to do at home:

For Adults: Interesting podcast episode from Krista Tippett’s show On Being, the changing faces of Mary Magdalene (click “play episode” in the right hand column). This episode also covers some recent scholarship about women in the New Testament (interview is with New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University). As a companion to the show, Tippett also has an overview of art depicting Mary Magdalene on her blog that children, youth, and adults all may enjoy looking through together.

Exploring the Stories of the Saints or #CHFSaints

Church School is off to a great start! Three weeks down and we have already worked with the words of Psalm 1, creating a communal illumination that will soon grace the walls in the Commons. Two weeks ago, we began a six week series on the lives and witness of the Saints. In view is All Saints (on a Sunday this year!) as well as two other feast days that land on Sundays, Saint Francis (October 4) and Saint Luke the Evangelist (October 18).

Working with Saints and Art
Some of our 4th and 5th grade students work with images of Mary Magdalene, identifying key symbols and themes from Christian art and iconography.

Our Saint series began with an overview. In their Church School classes children worked with Christian art and iconography in order to identify the symbols of particular saints (Mary Magdalene, Francis and Clare, Luke, Augustine and Monica, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). After working through these saints, each student created a flat version of their favorite.

Mary Magdalene
Here’s a flat Mary Magdalene. She is shown with a jar of perfume, a cross, and a red egg. Want to know why? Come back soon, over the next six weeks, we will post on each of the saints our students are covering.

Saints were laminated and students were given an activity book encouraging them to research their saint in different ways–Checking out a book from the Christian Education library (in the Commons), visiting the North Carolina Museum of Art to look for their and other saints among the religious art in the permanent collection, and coming back to this blog throughout the month as each of the saints is featured.

Our activity also involves taking pictures with the saint throughout the month as families learn different things about their saints, then engaging on Facebook (or Instagram) by posting photos with #CHFSaints. Let’s see how much we can learn about these saints, and more importantly, recognize how their lives point us to the person and work of Christ!

The Way of the Cross

Stations Bags
Every Friday during Lent, members of Holy Family gather in the Nave to walk the Way of the Cross.  The custom of walking the Stations of the Cross has long been observed by pilgrims to Jerusalem who want to walk in the footsteps of Christ on his journey to the Cross. Since pilgrimage to Jerusalem isn’t a possibility for everyone, stations based on the Scriptural and pietistic accounts of Jesus’ journey to the cross, have been compiled andadapted to local custom in a variety of ways over centuries of Christian practice. At times there have been as many as twenty stations and at others as few as five or six. The stations we walk every week at CHF come from the Book of Occasional Services and may be used, as we do, in a public service, or for private devotion, particularly on Fridays during Lent.

The Way of the Cross invites us to reflect together on the suffering of Christ as we journey with him to the cross. Usually, when we pray the stations together, we do so without images. The language of the prayers and readings provides rich imagery of their own. As a way of inviting our Parish’s youngest members to join this practice, last Friday, we met to pray using an interactive set of Stations. Our readings remained the same and we didn’t use images, but we explored key moments in the story through objects gathered over the course of our journey to the cross.

We began our journey at the altar, then moved to the first station “Jesus is condemned to death” at which participants received a burlap bag. Burlap, aside from it’s connections to simplicity and sackcloth and ashes, is a symbol that we use for Lent in Christian Education. The stories we work on in Lent, like burlap, are rough. On the one hand, they are often difficult or sad stories. On the other hand, Lent is a season during which we ask God to smooth out the rough places in our lives, places where various sins have taken hold.

Arriving at each subsequent Station, participants collected a symbol, holding it as the words for the Station were read. Some of the items, whose meaning was initially obscure (a toothpick), became apparent as we listened (Simeon’s words to Mary in Luke 2:35: “a sword will pierce your own soul also”). Some stations entailed a movement. At the tenth station, Jesus is stripped of his garments and “offered wine to drink, mingled with gall.” In the versicle and response which follow participants repeat the words of Psalm 69: 21, “and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.” At this station, participants received vinegar on a sponge. At Station thirteen, “The body of Jesus is place in the arms of his mother” participants marked their burlap bags with ashes in the shape of a cross.

Moving through the stations, each item was placed in the burlap bag as we chanted the Trisagion–Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us–during walking transitions.

At four stations, all three times Jesus falls and the station at which Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross, there were no symbols for participants to gather. Rather, we took note of the increasing weight of the story we carried as we approached Golgotha.

We concluded at the altar: Savior of the world, by your cross and precious blood you have redeemed us.

Save us, and help us, we humbly beseech you, O Lord.


Interested in reflecting further? Come back during Holy Week for reflections on several of the symbols explored in our interactive Stations.

At Home Formation: Remembering the Font

This post is part three of a three part series on reflecting on baptism during Epiphany. Find part 1 on creating a baptismal remembrance box here, and part two on exploring the mystery of Jesus’ baptism here.


Every Sunday morning offers opportunities for reflecting with your children on the story of God’s work in and among us. One thing that can help the children around you reflect on the significance of worship, baptism, and the story of God is teaching them to Notice Sacred Space. After the liturgy on a Sunday, tour the Baptismal font in the Nave with your children. Ask them to take note of the shape of the font, the words engraved in the stone (readers and early writers might want to write it down for reference later), the font’s location in the in the Nave, the location of the bowl of water, Paschal candle, and cross (perhaps even the cross that is used for the children’s liturgy).  The children’s book, A Walk Through our Church, which may be borrowed from our Christian Education Library (under the Christian Life category), is a wonderful guide to the Church’s holy things (pages 1-11 discuss baptism and the font).

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When you return home, invite your children to make an artistic depiction of the Holy Family font. Use crayons, colored pencils, lead pencils, or watercolors to depict the font (You can see my watercolor example above).

Just as baptism and identity are important themes in Epiphany, so these themes continue into the Lenten season. Indeed, as we begin to turn our minds and hearts to reflecting on the cross and later the resurrection, our baptism–living into Christ’s death and resurrection–are natural extensions of Lenten reflection. Sharing stories about baptism can help our families prepare for the Lenten season ahead. Your family may like to work on a table centerpiece for Lent. One feature of such a piece might be small, clay Baptismal Bowls (sculpey clay can be baked and hardened enough to hold small amounts of water). Provide each member of your family with a lump of clay (any color works, blue and green look quite a bit like water once they are marbled together) to make a small (palm-sized) bowl. Carve a cross or other symbol on the side of the bowls and bake them. Fill them with a small amount of water and add them to your family’s Lenten centerpiece or their use to your Lenten devotionals.

You  may want to remind your children that there is a bowl containing water which sits at the edge of our font in the Nave. These smaller bowls will help remind us of our baptism at home just like the bowl at church reminds us of our baptism.


To conclude this short series:

Remembering our baptism is no small or insignificant task, but is of utmost importance. On this matter, Laurence Stookey  in Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church writes: “As the formation of the human personality rests on the ability to remember one’s identity, so it is through knowing who we are in God’s sight that we become what we are intended to be.” In our baptism we are incorporated into the Church and begin the journey of becoming who is it that God has asked the Church to be, a sign for the world. Understanding what it means to belong to God and to one another is a lifelong task which depends on our practices of remembering for and with one another.


Remembering Baptism at Home: Exploring the Mystery of Jesus’ Baptism

This is the second post in a three-part series on sharing baptismal stories during Epiphanytide. You can find the first post, on creating a baptismal remembrance box, here.


Just over a year ago, our Church School classes heard the story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. Each class responded to the story in different ways but common to all responses was a moment at the end of class for each student to “remember” their baptism. Every student was invited to dip three fingers into a basin of water and make the sign of the cross upon their forehead. As the classes were letting out, I stationed myself in the commons near a small basin of water and a white candle to greet the children as they left for the week. One child boldly approached the basin, dipped his fingers one-by-one into the water, before pausing, and submerging his entire hand. He grinned, smearing his now dripping hand over his whole face in the sign of the cross. Once. twice. three times. As it turns out, droplets of water on a few fingers weren’t enough!


At Holy Family, our children have witnessed baptism many times, and even if they don’t remember or recall the day of their own, they are constantly reminded that in the abundant waters of the font, God has claimed them as God’s own. As the children in our parish grow, they will continue to uncover the richness of the gift that is their baptism. Layer upon layer will be added until they come to see the entire life of discipleship as an attempt to live faithfully into their baptismal vows. A seminary professor of mine, Dr. Fred Edie, was fond of calling this life-long process: “learning to swim in baptismal waters.”

Part of this life-long process of living into our baptism, is learning about Jesus own baptism. This story, like all of our Epiphany stories is about Jesus’ identity, it shows who Jesus is.

Here are two ideas for working with this story at home:

Compare the accounts of Jesus’ baptism: All four Gospel writers share the story of Jesus’ baptism. On a given week, spend time as a family reading through each of the Gospel writers showings (they can be found in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34). Together, make a list of what happens in each story, paying special attention to the details. At the end of the week, compare the lists from each story. What details are similar to all of the stories and what details are different? What does each Gospel writer highlight? Which is your favorite of the accounts? Do you think each writer is making a different point? Or, the same point in different ways? Are there any details in the story that are surprising? unexpected? confusing? Do any of the stories challenge or shape the way that we tell the story in the future? What do you think is the most important detail? What could be left out and the story would still be the same?

Working with Watercolor: After clearing the dinner table, engage in a silent family reflection and prayer about baptism. Read one of the stories of Jesus’ baptism (above) out loud and give and watercolor paper to each member of your family. Before passing out the paper, you can write in white crayon “You are my son, the Beloved” or “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Ask each person to paint water, a baptismal symbol, or a scene from Matthew or Luke (playing music in the background can help fidgety children stay calm). Each person will uncover the message as they paint. Alternatively, your family can make a list of all of the recent baptisms that have happened at our church. Then, in a short time of silence, pray for each person and their life as you remember and paint together.