I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children …. — Psalm 78:2-4
“What do you think, Father Cal,” the voice on the phone asked, “can I really talk with kindergarteners and first graders about the crucifixion, about nails going through his hands, and death?”
One of our Sunday School teachers was genuinely apprehensive about talking with kids about death, especially violent death. She wanted to know if it would be appropriate. Although most of us — most readers of this blog — probably believe that our media is saturated with violence and our culture is increasingly desensitized to it, I would wager that in reality we shield our children from blood, especially the violence that is so obviously in our world and even in our communities. And our instincts are not wrong. We certainly don’t want to warp our children. The folks who produce children’s bibles seem to feel similarly. My own kids have three different children’s bibles at home and I have access to twice as many at church. Of these only one actually shows Jesus crucified — most show a silhouette of the cross in the distance behind sad disciples or perhaps just Jesus’ feet at the bottom of the cross.
I have noticed this instinct in myself even in dealing with undergrads, although not with the crucifixion. In addition to my parish ministry, I also teach a Western Civ course for Wright State here in Dayton. I use lots and lots of images when I teach, but when it comes time to handle the first World War, I demur from showing my students the fruit of new military technology, the unbelievably mutilated faces that emerged from chlorine and mustard gas. Violence, not just pain or disease or death itself, but violence is deeply woven into the cosmos, the result (so Christians believe) of the Fall. That is a critical part of the story we have; it’s a critical piece to the narrative that drives us, that shapes the Church, and by which we make sense of the world around us. But according to the same story — the story we share with our children — God has addressed that violence by sharing in it.
When he devised the first nativity scene in 1223, Francis of Assisi wanted to show poor people how God shared in their poverty. In a similar way and in roughly the same period, prayers, poems, meditations, charms, and even guilds were given over to the five wounds of Christ. One of the most common artistic representations of Jesus in the 14th and 15th centuries was as the Man of Sorrows, a depiction of Jesus, bruised, bloody, crowned with thorns, and surrounded by the instruments of his Passion. This is Emmanuel, God with us. And, to borrow from an Advent hymn many of us will soon be singing (or may have already sung:
Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshipers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
I’m not telling you, dear reader, to sit your three-year-old down for a marathon of “The Passion of the Christ.” In fact, I’m not even encouraging you to put down the children’s bibles which soften and sanitize Calvary. I am, however, hopeful that we who hold the story dear are eager to find ways to share the story – our story, God’s story – from generation to generation.
… but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done. — Psalm 78:4
Calvin Lane’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a 15th-century altar frontal from Nuremberg, now in the Cloisters Museum in New York. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., and is licensed under Creative Commons.