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A few months ago, we watched in agony as Notre Dame was engulfed in flames. We feared the worst, from across the world, hearing commentary about its seemingly inevitable destruction. In the darkness of those unknown hours, it seemed likely that the priceless art and relics would burn up into the black Paris sky. That we would wake to a heap of ashes where, for centuries, beauty had stood.
In Isaiah, Christ promises us that He will give us Beauty for Ashes.
He doesn’t promise us that things won’t burn. He doesn’t tell us he’ll simply sweep away the ashes after the fire.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to come to him only if some walls are still intact, or before our rose windows melt or our spires fall. He doesn’t run to fix us only after we’ve squelched a bit of the fire and crafted something presentable for Him to work with.
He tells us that he will give us beauty for the ashes. The promise is that He will take the most burnt up, dark, nasty, horrid things in our lives and souls and somehow grow not only something worthwhile, but something beautiful from them. He will turn what appears to be the very substance of our ruin into something beautiful.
I love the emphasis our doctrine and culture places on the resurrected, living Savior, but I fear that we rush to get there, that we pay enough attention to the other part of the story. We don’t sit enough with the ashes, with the dead Christ. We often gloss over the horror of Good Friday to get to the beauty of Easter morning. This is especially easy to do with young children. We are afraid to shock them, to sadden them, to lay something too heavy on their hearts. So we diminish the cross, the suffering, the loss.
But we know better. Our doctrine teaches us clearly that pain and death and brokenness are critical elements, not only in the atonement, but in God’s grand plan for our salvation. We know that without pain there can be no joy, without death there is no life, without brokenness there is no redemption, without ashes, there is no beauty.
I’ve spent a few Good Friday’s attending performances of Bach’s St. Mathew’s passion. This epic choral work basically takes you through the material from this week’s Come Follow Me readings. (I recommend listening to parts of it this week). It tells the story of Christ’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion. And at the end, with Bach’s haunting melodies, Christ dies. There is no mention, not even a small inkling, of what will happen on the third day. The disciples, defeated and mourning, lay Jesus’ broken body in the tomb and roll the stone over. It feels dark and desperate and you leave longing for light and redemption.
The first year I attended this feeling was almost too much to take. It left me raw and sad, almost hopeless. It made me realize how uncomfortable I am in this state of uncertainty and despair. But over the years I’ve learned to sit with the sadness, to understand its power, it’s necessity; to contemplate the way Jesus’ crucifixion might have felt to those who moved through it, not knowing the end from the beginning.
Consider this incredible piece of art by Brian Kershisnik. I first saw it at the BYU art museum placed just around the corner from his giant and glorious Nativity painting. Kershisnik uses similar elements here (the angles filling the blank spaces) to tell a much different story. In this painting, entitled Descent from the Cross, we see the immense grief of the disciples in this moment in time, when the future was uncertain; when they had no vision of the future, no inkling of the glory they’d experience on the third day. In that moment they could only see the ashes: the crushed hopes, the uncertainty, the dead Christ, the loss of hope. They couldn’t see three days ahead to Easter dawn, the breaking of the tomb, the stone rolled back, the Christ rising with healing and restoration and beauty in His wings.
It carves deep wells of wisdom in us when we learn to sit with the grief and sadness of Good Friday. Of course, I’m not advocating that we show small children Mel Gibson’s Passion movie or dwell on the gruesome details of Christ’s death. But we can help them to learn to accept the ashes of this story as a critical part of the beauty, the darkness necessary for the light. Perhaps in helping them to feel this depth of sorrow, we can teach them to be more accepting of the brokenness they’ll encounter in their own lives, to not be so afraid of mistakes, trial, hardship, uncertainty. Perhaps a solid understanding of THE story of beauty for ashes–the story of the crucifixion–can help them to see this pattern in their own lives. We want our children to know that Jesus’ light shines best through broken things.
We are currently en route to the Holy Land where, mostly coincidentally, we will be spending this week staying in the Old City of Jerusalem, walking the ‘via dolorosa’ where Christ carried the weight of all these metaphorical ashes. I’m excited that the CFM curriculum spends a whole week walking with Christ through Good Friday. I hope to provide a few suggestions of things you might do with your children and on your own to feel a closeness with Jesus as he trods his lonely, dark and beautiful path.
Stations of the Cross activity.
For years we have spent a part of the afternoon on Good Friday to working our way through a “Stations of the Cross” activity. This is a long-standing Catholic and Protestant tradition on Good Friday that walks the worshiper via scriptures/pondering and prayer through 14-15 different parts of the Good Friday story. If you google “stations of the cross” there are lots of ideas of how to help children walk through the events through very tangible activities.
Here is a link to the guide that a friend and I came up with to use with our families.
It is pretty imperfect/thrown together and certainly not the best one out there. I like it though because it’s super simple, without many embellishments because I can’t pull them off. So if you want fancier/cuter/more involved ideas, Google “stations of the cross activities for children.”
We also try hard to reserve plenty of time for this activity and to do it with just our little family so that we don’t get overly rushed, rambunctious or distracted while thinking about and discussing something so heavy and deep. Some years have felt like a disaster, some have felt deep and magical, most have been a combination of the two. As our kids have gotten older we’ve started engaging them more by letting them each pick a few stations to prepare and lead. This has made a huge difference in their excitement and willingness make it to the end of this somewhat hard, but meaningful activity. In the end, we try to have some very simple hot cross buns to look forward to.
Seven statements on the cross activity.
Ask your children to search through the chapters for this week to find seven things that Jesus says while he is on the cross. Maybe split up the chapters and/or have them work in teams. Once you find all seven talk about what these seven things teach us about our dear Savior and how we can be more like him. These seven statements have been the subject of many works of art, stained glass windows, sermons and musical masterpieces. Perhaps assign and older child research this and find ways to learn (or teach younger children) the significance of what Christ says before dying.
Possible Mantras for this week to post in your home or memorize.
Of course there are many more, and we’ve found that having your children come up with them can be even better than doing it yourself, but here are some to get you started:
- Jesus Held His Peace (Matt 26:63)
- What shall I do with Jesus which is called the Christ? (Matt 27:22)
- Truly this was the son of God. (Matt 27:54)
- Forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
- Truly he was the son of God.
- Thou couldst have no power at all against me except it were given thee from above (John 19:11)
- Behold thy mother (John 19:27)
Discussions on Real World Application of Jesus’ teachings.
Since our children are all getting to the age where they can engage in meaningful conversation and debate, we are trying hard to have dinner or car discussions, and sometimes evening bedside chats to get a little deeper into the real world application of the lesson principles. The story of Good Friday contains many interesting characters that might be engaging for teens and older kids to think about. Growing up my dad often encouraged us to “make friends” with people in the scriptures, to try to really see them as real, to get to know their lives, to imagine, from what we know about them, how they might react in situations from our own lives. This chapter is full of characters that we can learn from by trying to round them out. Keep in mind that the more ownership you can give them in these discussions the more engaged they’ll be. Perhaps let them lead the discussions.
Judas: What made him betray Jesus? We learn that he did repent and try to make amends and felt horrible remorse. Have you felt this way (on a much more subdued scale) at times in your life? What do we learn about our actions and sins? Is Judas beyond Christ’s reach?
Barabbas and the masses who cried out “crucify him!” : why did the crowd want to free Barabbas instead of Jesus? In Matt 27:18 we read that it was because of Envy. What does this mean? Have you ever desired something not so good for someone because you’re actually a little envious of them? What does this say about human nature?
Pilot’s wife: We know very little about Pilots wife, but it can be a good exercise to imagine what she was like, what was the dream she had? Given the cultural roles around women might it have been hard for her to speak out? It seems she was forceful enough in her attempt to save Jesus to make it into the gospel of Matthew. Why didn’t Pilot give head to her dream? Or did he?
Pilot: How did he justify what he did? What made him feel better about his actions? Did he have a choice? Could he have stood up for Jesus? Have you been faced with the challenge to stand up for something that you feel is right, even if those around you (and higher than you) don’t agree with your standards?
Simon: What do we know about Simon who helped carry Christ’s cross? (Mark 15:21)
In Matthew 27:46 Jesus declares, my god my god, why hast thou forsaken me. What does this part of the story mean? Did God forsake His son? Read Elder Holland “None were with HIm.” Why was it necessary for God to withdraw from Jesus at this moment? Have you ever felt forsaken? Can you feel closer to Jesus knowing that He felt this way?
Are we afraid of being broken? Why does this scare us? What is it about broken things that Jesus loves?
What might it have been like to witness Jesus’ crucifixion? Search the scriptures to find what happened after Christ “gave up the ghost.” We often just think about earthquakes and darkness, but there were also spirits who came out of the grave and “appeared to many”. Why did the “rocks rent?” What does this tell us of Christ’s connection to the earth and natural world?
What do you think about the centurions who witnessed these events and declared Jesus divine, saying “Truly this was the son of God.” What might it have felt like to have this realization after having had part in the crucifixion? If you want to fully imagine what this might have been like I recommend the book “The Robe” by Lloyd C. Douglas.
Mark talks of many women who ministered to Jesus. How might this have felt to have had the opportunity to minister to Jesus during this time in his mortal ministry?
Luke 23:27-31 Here Jesus gives a little sermon to the women who are witnessing this event, detailing how bad things are going to get. Why did Christ turn to say this at this time? How might it have felt for Jesus to know what is to come as he is bearing the burden of the world?
Doer of the word challenge:
- Look out for ways to be like Simon this week and carry someone’s cross.
- Make a plan to more reverently and seriously take the sacrament. How can you use Sacrament meeting and the time around it to draw closer to the Savior?
- Choose someone in your life who has offended or hurt you and actively find a way to forgive them.
- Identify things in your life that feel burnt up and broken and pray to know how you can bring them to Jesus so that he can repair them and make something beautiful.
Just as hope must have felt lost for the disciples as they closed up the tomb on a seemingly dead Christ, in the middle of the destruction of our lives it often seems our situations or our souls are burned to nothing but worthless ruin. There are moments, sometimes weeks and months and even whole seasons where we feel stuck, sitting in piles of ash, mourning, weighed down by the spirit of heaviness. In these dark, lifeless, burnt up moments it’s hard to imagine how the mess will ever be cleared away, let alone flower into something worthwhile and redemptive.
Ashes, distress, loss, brokenness: this is the Redeemer’s pallet. These are the materials Christ uses to create beauty. Just as the dark contrast and shadow make art into a masterpiece, it is the cracks in our lives and the holes in our hearts that make us deep and real and alive, that allow Christ to transform us.
As we move through this week remembering the suffering and death of our Savior, let us remember that his promise (from Isaiah 61) is real:
The Lord hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort all that mourn; to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.