Holy Week is the most solemn and glorious week of the church year—even more so than Christmas. Beginning with Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem, and ending with Easter Sunday, Holy Week progresses to its final days with great solemnity. Sundown on Holy Thursday to sundown on Easter Sunday is referred to as the Sacred Triduum—these are considered the three holiest days of the liturgical year.
Children can participate in the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum. While we often think that due to the length of the services perhaps children should not come, there are ways to help kids appreciate the liturgies of the Passion and Death of Jesus. In fact, families with young children can participate in all of the days of the Triduum if the families so desire. This is a beautiful way to have a positive spiritual effect on children and help them rejoice more fully on Easter Sunday.
One way to help children understand what is occurring during Holy Week is to teach them about the whole liturgical year. We can explain the church calendar and show them that just like the twelve months of the year and the four seasons, the Church has her own calendar and seasons as well. The Church calendar is based on the life of Christ and is the same each year: it includes His birth, His baptism, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, His crucifixion, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and Pentecost. The Church does more than just express these events—She relives them and, by doing so, those who participate in the liturgies experience God's grace through each season and event.
It is good to explain a bit about each of the Holy Week services to kids. If we understand the symbolism involved we can better share it with our children.
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In the meantime, here is a quick recap of the events of Holy Week in a language that can be explained to children:
Palm Sunday marks the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey, which took place just a few days before He was betrayed by his friend Judas Iscariot (one of the twelve Apostles), put on trial, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. This day is called ‘Palm Sunday’ because the people of Jerusalem threw palm leaves to the floor as a greeting when he arrived. Children, too, threw palms and danced as Jesus entered the city. Palms are handed out at Mass and we can keep them in our homes all year and bring them back to church so that they might be burned and used for the next Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent).
Holy Thursday is the first night of the Triduum. On that first Holy Thursday, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples to show us how to be charitable to others. It is important for us to be charitable, too, to our family members and to friends, neighbors, and those who are less fortunate. The Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist are what we are remembering when we celebrate during the Holy Thursday liturgy. Tell your kids how lucky we are that we can receive Jesus every day and that Jesus gave us priests so that we can receive Our Lord's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity every time we come to Mass.
Good Friday is when Jesus died on the cross. Explain to kids that we call this day "good" because on that day, God saved us from sin and eternal damnation through the sacrifice of His Son. Only God can turn something like the Crucifixion into something wonderful: the Easter Resurrection. While it is very sad that Jesus was crucified, help your children to understand that God loves us so much that He gave us His only Son. Today is a very sad, but good day, because it is the day that Christ redeemed each one of us and offered Himself on the Cross to atone for all of our sins.
Holy Saturday is the day that Jesus lay in the tomb. One of the things I distinctly remember as a child was going to church on Holy Saturday. Although there was no service, my mom would bring us into the church where we would sit alone in a pew, and she would ask us to think about the sadness of that day. It wasn’t easy for the thoughts of my young mind to focus like that, but eventually, I would bring my mind to Christ and to His death. I remember feeling a deep-down sadness. Even as a child, the thought that Christ bore my sins and the sins of the whole world on His shoulders weighed heavy on me. Even if we don't go to church on Holy Saturday we can talk about it at home. As the day goes on, we can remind children that Easter is coming. The sadness will end and Jesus will rise again.
Today is a day that families often do a house cleaning and decorate Easter eggs or get the Easter food blessed at church. While it is a somber day, it should become more of an anticipation of jubilee as evening approaches.
The Easter Vigil is the Mass held after nightfall on Holy Saturday, or before dawn on Easter Sunday, in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. This is called the Easter Vigil: the most glorious, beautiful, and dramatic liturgy of the Church.
The vigil is divided into four parts and can last up to three hours: 1) the Service of Light, 2) the Liturgy of the Word, 3) the Liturgy of Baptism, and 4) the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is also the Mass where many new Catholics (those who have prepared for it for most the previous year) are brought into full communion with the Catholic Church. It is long service and children who come might very well fall asleep during some of it. We brought our whole family (lots of children and cousins sat together) to this beautiful liturgy five years ago when my mother came into the Catholic Church.
Alleluia, He is risen! Children will be eager to finally celebrate Easter. The Sunday Easter Mass is joyful with lots of music and is a chance for girls to don their Easter dresses and hats and for boys to also look their best. They will rejoice even more if they have participated as much as is possible in the Triduum. Easter egg hunts and yummy food and desserts should be a big part of this day. We can remind our children throughout the day that Jesus is the reason we celebrate—that His rising from the dead is the most wonderful reason to rejoice.